Now that just about every major sports league in the world has been canceled for the next few months, there’s a desperate need for competition on TV. While I love a good TV show, there’s something about the emotional highs and lows of sports that you just can’t get out of most TV. And most reality-competition shows don’t feature the kind of top-level performance that you get from the world’s best athletes. Thankfully, one reality show can effectively fill that void: Top Chef.
The competitors on Top Chef are the best athletes on TV right now, and the show’s newest season is about as close as we can get to sports at the moment.
My Top Chef journey started just a week and a half ago. On a whim, having never seen the show before, I binge-watched season 16 before the season 17 premiere on Thursday, March 19. So I’m not a Top Chef expert. Mostly, I’m a sports fan who’s desperate to watch experts in a field compete for high stakes in a tense environment, now that every major sports league in the world has canceled its games for the next few months. And it turns out, Top Chef perfectly satisfies my craving for competition.
For people like me who haven’t been watching all along: Top Chef is a reality cooking competition show. In almost every episode, there’s a Quickfire Challenge, a short themed competition that starts the episode and gives the winner an advantage later on, and a longer, more elaborate Elimination Challenge that will send one competitor packing. The last chef standing gains the prize and the title of Top Chef, along with a cash prize and a few high-profile event appearances.
Unlike most reality competitions, though, Top Chef isn’t about amateurs with hidden talents, or weekend warriors with just enough skill to surprise the judges. This is a show about professional chefs coming together to take a shot at glory. These are private chefs, executive chefs, award-winners, and restaurant owners all taking a break from their lives as actual professionals to compete.
This gives the show a different feel from something like the Great British Baking Show. None of the competitors are ever confused over how to make a dish, and none of them go home because they couldn’t pull off a modestly ambitious cake. These chefs are creating outstanding-looking meals in each episode. Even the show’s scrappiest underdog would embarrass a home cook. In other words, they aren’t much different from the competitors in any major sports league.
And that goes double for the currently airing season 17, which is an all-star season, featuring some of the best chefs who have competed on the show, but didn’t win. This means the competition is even fiercer than normal, and every chef there is already familiar with how to play the game. It makes this season an especially easy jumping-on point, since these chefs have plenty of built-in storylines and existing relationships. Every time someone brings up an inside joke or a memory from their season you get a talking-head explanation or a short clip from previous seasons that shows what they’re talking about. It’s the reality-TV equivalent of a greatest-hits album.
While the chefs are the stars of the show, it’s the editing that makes Top Chef work. The show’s editing is like commentary in sports: its ultimate goal is to explain things to the viewers in easily understandable ways, and to break down complicated concepts. It makes the audience feel like experts without ever making them feel patronized. Between the talking-head interviews, stray comments from directors and judges, and even little facial expressions, Top Chef gets this just right.
Every challenge is carefully laid out so you understand everything that could go wrong for each contestant, even if you don’t know how to prepare a soft-shell crab or what exactly is in gnocchi. As the chefs rush around the kitchen trying to make gourmet perfection in a couple of hours, the show never lets you lose track of who is making what, or where they are in the process. Even in the most chaotic moments, as the clock winds down, it’s easy to tell who’s going to make it in under the wire, and who’s right to be panicking.
Most importantly, every episode’s competitions build into pulse-pounding crescendos. It’s like getting the last two minutes of a tied basketball game in every episode. Every chef is in a panic as they put the finishing touches on their dish. Chefs come up with tiny last-second additions that could keep them from losing a challenge, or cut corners just to make sure all the food ends up on the plate. And at the end, someone always goes home, so the stakes are baked in from the beginning. Just like sports, there’s always a loser, and it’s always gutting to watch.
None of the show’s quality or excitement came as a surprise to me. I’ve heard people sing Top Chef’s praises for almost two decades, and it turns out they were right. What surprised me was just how fast it ignited my inner sports fan. After a few episodes, I had a favorite chef — in season 16 it was Eric Adjepong, who’s back for the current all-stars season — and suddenly every episode felt like cheering for a hometown team.
Watching Eric win Quickfire or Elimination challenges is intoxicating. Every time he bites off more than he can chew or takes a wrong step, it’s like suffering through watching my favorite team take a well-deserved loss. Getting frustrated as the judges level overly harsh criticism feels exactly the same as sitting in my living room, railing on a referee for an unfair penalty.
Even seeing my least-favorite chef under-salt a dish with six ingredients I’ve never heard of gives me the same feeling as watching one of the NBA’s best heels brick a three-pointer. Could I have done better? Absolutely not. But the schadenfreude will leave me elated for hours.
Top Chef takes all the white-hot emotions of a three-hour sports game and trims the fat, cooking them all into 45-minute gourmet-TV entrees. It isn’t exactly sports, but it’s as close as we’re going to get for a few months, and thankfully, it hits the spot.
Top Chef airs on Bravo every Thursday night and the first episode of season 17 is available, in its entirety on Bravo’s YouTube channel. Previous seasons, like season 16, are available to stream on Hulu.
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