Oh, Govind, how could ya?
“TOP CHEF” is the jackhammer of the food world. Even with earplugs, it is impossible to tune out.
The reality show in which cooks compete in various staged challenges is already in its third season on the Bravo channel. But even for someone who might be fortunate enough not to know a remote from a microwave, there is no escape: “Top Chef” is also covered relentlessly -- exhaustively, even -- on blogs and websites and online discussion boards.
Stage-managed competitive cooking shows are nothing new. The world has survived “Iron Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” relatively quietly, after all, and now the Food Network is banging the stockpots loudly trying to get anyone to notice that its “Next Food Network Star” is going into a fourth season.
But “Top Chef,” a spinoff of a fashion bake-off called “Project Runway,” is the “Dallas” of its day, continuously riding a whole new wave that is washing up all over television and the Internet and even into the most respectable of outlets, print media.
Now its cooking-as-pro-wrestling-match tentacles are reaching into advertising, as sponsors milk their connections to the programming. All the world’s a competitive soundstage.
A new campaign for Glad’s microwave steaming bags features a contest to elect a sort of top chef to represent the brand. Web visitors are invited to vote on which of five relatively famous cooks -- Govind Armstrong, Sam Talbot, Dave Lieberman, Aaron Sanchez or G. Garvin -- best exemplifies the company’s “steamiest chef.”
The poor guys (no girls, of course -- just think who buys the plastic wrap in a given house) have to wink and nod and try to look steamy to the point of sexy in one dimension. If you roll your cursor over their bobbing heads at glad.eprize.net/steamiestchef, though, they almost light on fire in their “choose me” desperation.
In a distantly “Top Chef"-related competition, the Bertolli olive oil and processed food company is running an online contest to choose a co-host for Rocco DiSpirito for its new online programming. Entrants have to create a video demonstrating their credentials and expertise with “Mediterranean style,” and visitors to www.whatsyourmedstyle.com will vote.
DiSpirito, of course, is best known as the protagonist in another reality show, “The Restaurant.” Both he and his created-for-television restaurant in New York City failed magnificently, and quickly. But “Top Chef” keeps on churning.
Raising the stakes
Competitive cooking has always been as American as pickle- and pie-judging at state fairs, but with television, the stakes have been raised to Nielsen level. Anyone who has seen the judging of a chili or barbecue cook-off knows the old way is about as exciting as watching Pillsbury dough bake.
“Iron Chef,” the Japanese import, was the first program to turn competitive cooking into something much more dramatic, but “Top Chef” has moved the goal posts closer to “Survivor,” if not “The Simple Life.”
Competitive cooking is the new football, crossed with the lottery: skill merged with a game of chance for show.
“Top Chef” pits roughly a dozen young, uniformly telegenic cooks in two cook-offs in each episode. (You could think of it as “Iron Chef” after a population explosion, and sans the famous faces of Masaharu Morimoto or Bobby Flay.)
In the first, called “Quickfire,” they each have to come up with a dish or two in very short time with no notice of what ingredients they will be wrangling (or mangling).
In the second, “Elimination,” they cook a dish or two to be judged by a team of judges, both regulars and guests. The lousiest dish loses, and that cook -- to use the cliché -- packs up his knives and goes home.
Last one standing at the end of the season wins $100,000 and other prizes with a sponsor’s name attached.
Devotees are clearly fascinated, but much of the action looks like the “Keystone Cooks,” with more of them running around like decapitated chickens than actually using their heads.
What works in television programming is even easier to exploit in advertising. Once upon a time, promos for Glad and Bertolli would have flitted across a TV screen and been forgotten. In the age of online viewership even on tiny cellphones, a programming concept can go commercial very easily. Like the show? Stay tuned to vote on the commercial.
Technology has been a huge help. The amateur videos submitted to the Bertolli/Rocco competition are all testaments to technology at the most rudimentary level: Anyone with a camera and a computer can produce 30 seconds of video that might make Julia Child’s best efforts look primitive.
And the power of tube food is only expanding. In one recent episode, “Snacks on a Plane,” the aspiring tops raced around making surprise breakfasts to be judged by robotic hostess Padma Lakshmi, followed by a surprise airline meal to be judged by flight attendants and the usual suspects, including Keyser Söze himself, Anthony Bourdain.
The camera dwelt lovingly on the blenders at breakfast, which turned up shortly in a commercial, and then viewers were treated to long shots of Continental planes in flight. Entertainment or infomercial? You decide. Just don’t think about the fact that Continental promoted the episode in advance in newspaper advertisements.
But it doesn’t really matter whether you saw what transpired on the big flat screen. You could log on to the “Top Chef” blogs on Bravo’s website and tap into an endless impassioned discussion moderated by Lakshmi or judges including Tom Colicchio and Ted Allen.
Or you could read Bourdain’s commentary, and the comments it incites, or tune into anonymous carping on Chowhound’s media boards. At least half a dozen threads at a time may be following predictions, outcomes and assorted debates about the various skills and deficiencies of candidates (and judges).
Or you could surrender your life to searching for deeper meaning in unnaturally obsessed, dedicated blogs such as bloggingtopchef.blogspot.com or the more mainstream such as la.eater.com. The latter seems to post on “Top Chef” before episodes, after episodes and in between episodes at a rather steady clip, with all contestants on a first-name basis.
There are interviews with losers, “spoiler alerts” on leaked details, conjecture and peripheral stories, along with the occasional acknowledgment that the attention is definitely too detailed.
Can’t bear to watch? Televisionwithoutpity.com describes every episode in extensive detail, with no screen grabs of annoying contestants with Mohawks.
Not enough to sit and watch? Viewers can also go online to guess the winner of each show and win trips and other prizes from Bravo. Or they can buy “Top Chef” merchandise online: pots, pans, Cuisinarts and cookbooks too. The merchandising site www.seenon.com/television also sells “Top Chef” aprons, oven mitts, knives and more.
Imagine if the Food Network had seen this coming. The “Two Fat Ladies” could have segued into commercials for Whoppers and lard. “Molto Mario” could have been morphed into Mario Batali action figures and orange cookware, with clogs to boot. Wait. That actually happened.