How the Bravo reality show redefined fame and success for professional chefs
Top Chef has had an inordinate effect on my life in that it pretty much launched my career, such as it is. When the show first started airing on Bravo way back in 2006, I was working at Gawker as something called an After Hours Editor. This was a confusing title since I worked normal business hours but wrote about things that happened at night. Among those nocturnal happenings were both going to restaurants and watching Top Chef, a new type of reality cooking competition spearheaded by sartorial predecessor Project Runway. As I had for that fashion design competition, I would watch Top Chef and then spend all night writing a recap in a cocaine-fueled high. It was both the beginning and the peak of my career.
But it was hard not to write voluminously and inspiredly about Top Chef. The show was a Midasian muse. It not only captured contestants in extremis, held taut between intense stress and baser human instincts like its predecessors, but it also embodied tremendous skill, artistic expression, and a lofty impulse toward high-end cuisine. Ambition, talent, frailty, jealousy, flaws, and the occasional burst of genius were served on one plate under the jurisprudential gaze of a panel of judges. It was brilliant: Every level, every note, every muse was addressed. The patron saints of tragedy, comedy, law, love, and food left the hour sated.
Sixteen years later, that Gawker is gone, sued out of existence by a deranged billionaire over a wrestler’s sex tape. I am older, too, body sagging and knees bad. My youth has spiraled down the drain of time into the gummed-up pipes of the universe. But Top Chef? Top Chef is still extant, arriving every year like a field of zinnias and sunflowers. It has become part of the pop culture firmament — permaculture, if you will — a landscape-altering feature. The ebb and flow of Padma Lakshmi’s Quickfire challenges, Tom Colicchio’s elimination, and finally the judges’ tables, wherein the full panel meets like Clotho (Lakshmi), Lachesis (Gail Simmons), and Atropos (Colicchio). These have become our own cultural circadian rhythms.
Over the arc of the 19 seasons, time is divided into two eras: BMH, before Marcel’s head was shaved, and afterward, AMH. Secret societies are still devoted to solving the mystery of Ed’s missing Pea Puree of Season 7. There are two camps, generally, among Top Chef aficionados: those who prefer the raw human drama of the earlier season, up to and including Season 10 in Seattle, and those who prefer the later seasons, in which personal drama has faded and culinary prowess has increased. I am a Venal Top Chef kinda guy myself, but I’m not proud of it. Either way, over the course of nearly 300 episodes, Top Chef has indisputably had a substantive effect on the culinary world. The question is: What is the nature of this effect? This is stickier. By what metric should one measure the impact of Top Chef?
By the show’s own logic, the most salient metric should be the number of restaurants opened by Top Chef alumni, which the show posits as the ultimate achievement for a chef. An acclaimed, award-winning restaurant is the grand prize, what it’s all about, the whole kit and caboodle, the megillah. The hierarchy can be deduced from the reward system, which culminates in a grand prize of $100,000 (later bumped to $250,000), given to a winner in order to “fulfill [their] culinary dreams,” and from the overarching narrative of a young and callow chef, beholden to an industry name, yearning for the freedom to “cook their own food” in a restaurant of their own.
There are too many restaurants opened by Top Chef contestants to even mention. Some are very good. But of the seasons’ 18 winners, 12 currently have restaurants open. Many are modest affairs in the fast-casual mode. Ilan Hall, the winner of Season 2, runs a vegan ramen place, Ramen Hood, in Los Angeles. Mei Lin, winner of Season 12, opened a fried chicken counter called Daybird, also in Los Angeles, though COVID-19 unfortunately shuttered her fine-dining affair, Nightshade. There have, of course, also been some real large-scale ambitious successes, too: Stephanie Izard, who emerged triumphant from Season 4, was the owner of a group of very successful Chicago restaurants, as is Brooke Williamson in Los Angeles. And there may have been only 18 winners, but there have been 290 contestants. Like Abrahams, the descendants of Top Chef have been as numerous as stars in the sky and stretch from places like Folk in Detroit to Folktable in Sonoma, California. By this point, there are so many restaurants run by former Top Chef contestants, it has ceased to be notable.
But Top Chef did change something bigger than restaurants. It changed what it means to be a successful chef in America by unmooring chefs from restaurants. Hitherto, restaurants had long been the prized underlying asset of chefdom. It was the foundation on which all other fame and renown was built. That seawall began to crack a little with a small cadre of celebrity chefs lionized by the Food Network beginning in the mid-1990s, but still, those chefs built their brands on brick-and-mortar establishments. Certainly in 2006, when Top Chef premiered, the apotheosis of a chef’s career was having a successful restaurant — or perhaps many successful restaurants — where they were cooking their own food. As late as 2012, this was the goal. Writing about an obscure Top Chef spin-off, Life After Top Chef, The Atlantic’s Ken Gordon wrote, “Must a Top Chef contestant open up a restaurant? The answer is: No. But to watch LATC, it’s clear that everyone sees restaurant ownership as the only possible step after five minutes of quick-fire fame.”
But in 2022, that’s no longer the case. The success of Top Chef awoke the industry — those already in it and those just entering — to the idea that restaurants aren’t really the prize, or maybe a consolation prize at best. After all, what kind of prize is a labor-intensive, stressful, life-and-money leeching, overhead-heavy endeavor with a terrible success rate, razor-thin margins, and ever-increasing costs? A Pyrrhic one indeed.
No wonder chefs, winning and nonwinning alike, have used the platforms afforded them by Top Chef to, well, build additional platforms. Many have become authors. (Hell, I even co-wrote two books with one.) Some, like Camille Becerra, are free-floating “storytellers.” Others have gone down the direct-to-consumer route with hot sauces and lager. Melissa King, one of the most talented and compelling contestants, now curates culinary experiences and brand collaborations. A surprising number of chefs have been sucked into the television world themselves. The most successful of these have become hosts. Carla Hall, for instance, or Kristen Kish, who hosted 36 Hours on the Travel Channel and on TruTV. Others have become serial contestants. Michael Voltaggio got his own show (Breaking Borders), and after that ended, he became a regular on myriad shows, including Guy’s Grocery Games. In recent seasons, Top Chef has started to devour its own young, as alumni are summoned to appear again on Top Chef to judge and crown new Top Chefs. And, of course, this platform leads to brand collaborations and sponsorship deals, the revenue from which outstrips the margins of even a successful restaurant with far less work.
For someone who eats at restaurants for a living, I think this is a bummer, but I get it. You can’t help but love food more after watching Top Chef. As a nation of tasters, Top Chef was our civics course. Had the show not become canonical, would the public be as conversant in genres of restaurants from fine dining to fast casual? Would we know what a knife roll was or that to pack those knives and go meant ignominious defeat? Without the molasses delivery of Padma Lakshmi, the Torontonian cheer of Gail Simmons, and the Union County-twang of Tom Colicchio to guide us, would everyday Americans be quite as savvy to ras el hanout, aware of the dangers of searing wet meat, or terrified of the sin of serving warm cod ceviche? Certainly not. As the years flowed by, the show built on its popularity and its increasingly educated populace to really celebrate food over drama. The narrative climaxes were no longer interpersonal bullying or backstabbing but the zing and tensions of flavors expertly balanced, feats of culinary bravado executed under extreme pressure. Ironically, as the show progressed and the food got better and better, the contestants became increasingly disinterested in feeding the public directly. And yet, could there be any different outcome?
To be grumpy about this is unwise, for there is no alternative. Restaurants make restaurant chefs. Television shows make television chefs. And really, who can blame a chef for bypassing the increasingly untenable business of running a restaurant in the first place? By decoupling chefs from the ball and chain of restaurant kitchens, they’ve been able to slip into our houses, hearts, and wallets in myriad embodiments: books, pans, reels, knives, lives, knickknacks, TikToks, cans of beer, jars of hot sauce. Into the etheric realm of influencing, chefs have burst, leveraging their restaurant bona fides into empires of personal brands. And it was Top Chef, unrivaled as a launchpad for these aspiring human trademarks, that gave them the momentum. Well, good for them, of course. For all the sanctimonious shit we talk about how hard it is to work as a chef in a restaurant kitchen, how could we do anything but give snaps to a chef who wisely says fuck it? But still, I do fret.
Why? Basically, the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. An analog to this decoupling of underlying assets with value can be found in derivative or futures trading in the financial markets. The practice of trading futures stretches back to ancient Greece — it started with olive oil futures in 600 BCE — and has proliferated since. The idea is simple: Instead of simply trading stocks or mortgages or olive oil or soybeans, the derivatives market allows traders to profit from secondary or “derivative” assets like futures, forwards, swaps, and options. While a normie trader might exchange shares in a bank, a derivative trader trades in tranches of debt owed to that bank. A commodities trader might trade in aluminum, but a derivatives trader trades in the future price of aluminum. All of a sudden the underlying commodity is just the beginning of moneymaking, not the end. Sounds great, right?
No one can argue that derivative trading didn’t make a buttload of money for many people for many years. (Many of those people are the ones who have supported fine dining for years.) But one needs only to think about the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 to 2009 to realize the danger and fragility of the entire scheme. (For a quick primer, here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub.) When the value of the derivative becomes unmoored from the value of the underlying asset, we’re headed for trouble. Similarly, when the value of a chef becomes a product of some sort of free-floating brand extension, decoupled from any sort of actual kitchen work, we’re headed for a crash.
Top Chef has turned cooking into entertainment and chefs into entertainers. But as opposed to an actor or a vaudevillian, a chef’s primary means of expression and area of competency is cooking. There is no substitute for enjoying cooking better than eating it and no more accessible place for the public to eat than a restaurant. As a jobbing writer, I shall forevermore be indebted to Top Chef for the sheer volume of material its 19 seasons have proffered. As a viewer, I could ask for no better companions with which to transition from callow youth into middle age. But as an eater, a restaurant freak, and a new-menu obsessive, I can’t help but wish more chefs would simply just pack their knives and go… open a restaurant.
Joshua David Stein is an editor and author. He has co-written many cookbooks including My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef, with Kwame Onwuachi; The Nom Wah Cook Book, with Wilson Tang; Il Buco: Stories & Recipes, with Donna Lennard, and Vino: The Essential Guide to Real Italian Wine, with Joe Campanale. He is a frequent contributor to Esquire, Eater, Hemispheres, and New York magazine and the author of many children’s books.
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.
Fact checked by Dawn Mobley
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein