In Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Perfume, an 18th-century French orphan is born with an extraordinary sense of smell and Süskind describes every scent and odor experienced by our protagonist. “Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will,” says the writer. “The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
In the same way Perfume takes the reader on a journey of fragrances without actually smelling anything, Top Chef does the same with food. From the kitchen to the final dish, we experience every bite with the chef and the judges. From Bryan Voltaggio’s goat cheese ravioli with delicata squash puree and bronze fennel in season six to last year’s winner, Jeremy Ford, and his ricotta and mozzarella cheese cylinder with spiced fig jam, pumpernickel toast, and a honey ball, every dish is served up on TV.
Created in 2006, Top Chef premieres its 14th season on Bravo on Thursday night, where professional chefs will compete against each other. Every contestant comes with an impressive résumé and the judges include Eric Ripert, Wolfgang Puck and Graham Elliot, the latter being the newest addition to the judges’ table. This is by far the most grueling of competitions and I am always amazed at the way these chefs handle themselves – personally I would have cried myself to sleep every night if Tom Colicchio ever criticized my scrambled eggs.
Every year, the show’s format slightly changes – whether that’s number of contestants, elimination rounds or guest judges – and for this season eight new contestants will face off against eight returning from previous seasons.
Some episodes never change because they are just too damn entertaining, Restaurant Wars being the perfect example – the contestants split in two teams and have to create, manage and serve in a pop-up restaurant. The contestants are always as eclectic as you can get and Top Chef is always at its best when the people are as interesting as their food. I’m ecstatic that Katsuji Tanabe, the talented Mexican-Japanese chef from LA is back for this one – he is a charismatic train almost always veering off track.
Another ingredient for Top Chef’s appeal comes down to the main judges. I love everything that Gail Simmons says and I am always in agreement with her palate, she could judge Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and still make it sound classy. Season 8 winner Richard Blais is most definitely enjoying his role as the “been-there-done-that” judge and nothing escapes the wrath of Tom Colicchio, James Beard award-winner and founder of New York’s renowned Gramercy Tavern. The veteran chef and judge is Top Chef’s Captain Ahab, searching for the perfect dish and ready to destroy its creator with venomous criticism. He did, however, take it surprisingly easy on Marge Simpson when he guest-starred on The Simpsons. Meanwhile, Indian-American presenter Padma Lakshmi is a smart food critic and one of the most valuable and critical voices on the show.
Top Chef now has multiple local versions across the world, including Top Chef Middle East and Top Chef Panama – both of which premiered this year. It has been nominated for an Emmy every year since 2007 and won in 2010 for outstanding reality-competition. After all these years it’s clear to me that the show succeeds because it celebrates the art of cooking without asking its audience to know anything about it in the first place. The chefs, judges and challenges are all there to entice your appetite, without ever asking for your expertise. Top Chef wins our attention because ultimately, it’s a program about people and their undying love for their craft. Bravo to Bravo for that.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010