The executives at Bravo TV presumably breathed a sigh of relief to see San Francisco-based Melissa King win “Top Chef All-Stars: Los Angeles” by serving “the best progressive four-course meal of your life” in the season finale on 18 June in Tuscany, Italy. The outcome seemed likely, given that King was on fire for much of the season, winning a disproportionately large number of the weekly competitions.
Yet there was also undoubtedly significant pressure placed on judges and producers Padma Lakshmi and Tom Collichio to ensure King, an ethnic-Chinese lesbian, was declared “top chef.” The award-winning show has often taken heat for not rewarding non-Caucasian male contestants with the title. Such are the perils of trying to run a competition based on objective criteria — namely, the quality and deliciousness of food — in our woke age.
In the 2014 finale of “Top Chef: New Orleans,” Nicholas Elmi, a Philadelphia-based chef with a classic French cuisine background, battled Caribbean-born Miami native Nina Compton, who was trained in the rustic Italian style. Compton had been the frontrunner for most of the season, consistently impressing the judges with various creative takes on gnocchi.
Both Elmi and Compton cooked well in the finale, but the judges ultimately awarded the white male “top chef.” Critics and some viewers went crazy. “It’s a result that lacks the basic ring of fairness, especially given the optics of a white male winning over two women of color [Compton and second runner-up Shirley Chung] who spent the season steamrolling him,” wrote critic Joshua Alston. “Elmi’s win over Compton tarnishes the Top Chef brand,” he added.
Colicchio actually jumped on Twitter to defend the result with a breakdown of the votes and outmaneuver the many people accusing “Top Chef” of indulging the white male patriarchy.
Something similar happened in the 2018 season, when audience favorite Eric Adjepong, a likeable DC-based chef of West African heritage, lost in the finale to two Southern white women. Once again, critics expressed their disappointment at the ruling, many suggesting judges’ opinions were unfairly influenced by either their ignorance of or bias against West African cuisine.
Possibly to circumvent that optic, in the finale Lakshmi tried to turn the contest between two white women into its own political statement by exhorting them to consider all the young women watching them who might be inspired to overcome oppressive patriarchal narratives.
There are multiple curious ironies at work here. The first has to do with audience outrage over who wins each season. Nobody watching the show at home really has any idea what any of the food tastes like. How could anyone be sure that Compton, Adjepong, or King’s food really and truly was the best of all the contestants’?
The only things viewers have to go on is how the food looks (which, as anyone knows, can be quite deceptive), or how judges describe it. Outrage over whose food is deemed best or worst is to engage in pure speculation.
The second irony is that outrage over the victories of white, male chefs is to implicitly demand that “Top Chef” apply identity politics as a criteria over the quality of food. Yet that is precisely the point of the competition.
“Viewers want to see stories that are a far cry from the formulaic narratives; seasons five and six of Chef’s Table certainly moved in that direction, highlighting women and chefs of color to much acclaim,” claimed an article at Food and Wine Magazine. Perhaps this explains why the series has cast between one to three queer women on every season of its history. Four of 15 contestants (26 percent) in the most recent season were gay. The show has never featured an American-Indian contestant.
Thus the “Top Chef” producers constantly find themselves trapped in a dilemma: how to appear to be a thrilling, objective competition, while appealing to woke sensibilities. In a recent Washington Post interview, Lakshmi admitted that the show needed to have a wider array of contestants’ sexual identities and ethnicities to improve the show’s image. In an interview with Esquire, Colicchio similarly admitted, “We’re trying to make it as diverse as possible, but also make sure people can cook. If we were to put contestants up there who were reflective of the restaurant community, it would be a lot of white guys. Which can also give you an insight into why more white men win.”
In other words, “Top Chef” already intentionally aims to reduce the number of contestants who are white males.
“Top Chef” is not the only program consistently under pressure to evaluate contestants on something other than skill. “American Idol,” for example, which makes far less of an attempt at evaluating contestants objectively, has been frequently accused of racism. In the program’s 12th season, “its producers made no attempt to contain their giddiness over an all-female finale.” This has been one of the great, laudable qualities of “Top Chef” — it actually seeks to judge people based on merit.
I presume King deserved to win the latest season of “Top Chef.” She was one of the best chefs when she appeared on Season 12, and the obvious frontrunner for most of this past season.
I also presume the producers were very, very happy for her to maintain her culinary stamina and excellence. It shields them from outrage culture, while burnishing their progressivist image. If dark horse contestant (and white, straight male) Bryan Voltaggio had out-cooked King in the finale — a very real possibility given Voltaggio’s success across three seasons of being on the show — there would have been an uproar and accusations of systemic injustice.
This also illuminates a problem: because King is Asian and lesbian, she is insulated from the irrational demands of identity politics that demand “Top Chef” consider the race, sex, and sexual preferences of white, straight males.
In a contest that tries to be objective, sometimes the woke mob’s despised candidate will spoil everything, as in 2014 and 2018. Sometimes one must begrudgingly award it to the representative of “the patriarchy.” And sometimes, like this year, the preferred woke candidate fairly beats out all competitors.
One hopes this will continue to be the case, if “Top Chef’s” producers prioritize merit over identity politics. Yet, as events such as the toppling of statues honoring Ulysses S. Grant and Juniperro Serra suggest, our cancel culture’s appetite for identity politics purity appears insatiable.