Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Top Chef (Season 5; Episode 1)

My post-election fog has lifted (slightly), because I'm happy to say that the fifth season of Top Chef has finally arrived. Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows that this show affects my bio-rhythm in its entirety--I measure my sleep, plant my crops, and take my meals according to this show. Have you ever watched this show and thrown something at your television after an upset victory, or jumped off your couch after someone corruptly turns off a fellow contestants' burners? For the next three months, you can count on this space to discuss--what else?--the politics of Top Chef.

Episode #1:

1. the army wife. lauren's husband is serving in iraq, making the role of army spouse an official contender in the realm of identity politics catered to by reality television. or the war has affected so many people in the last 5 years that the odds landed an army spouse on the show. either way, it's clear that the war has continued to ravage lives around the globe and that's pretty disheartening.

2. playing the "ethnic" card. radhika says in one moment that she doesn't want to be stereotyped as the indian chef who makes curries with a bunch of spices; almost immediately afterwards she's off making chutney because that's what she knows how to do. we see a lot of this on this show--certain chefs are pidgeonholed into a type of cuisine and the esteemed panel of judges doesn't hesitate to completely essentialize regions of the world and make egregious claims that contestants should challenge themselves by cooking outside of their 'asian' comfort zone. seriously? i think it's particularly irritating when we use an arbitrary u.s. census category to cluster completely different cultures under one insulting label, but then to insinuate that their palates are also indistinguishable? that's akin to asking padma to stop wearing dresses because they all look the same.

3. speaking of essentialism. the challenge asked these chefs to find inspiration from neighborhoods in nyc that are so ridiculously eclectic themselves, i was baffled. chinese, indian, middle eastern... these judges were on a roll. i want to know how a dish smothered in something called 'masala sauce' wins accolades when masala literally just means spices. also, since when is little india considered to be curry hill on lexington ave. in
manhattan? i think any indian in the ny/nj metro area remembers weekend trips out to jackson heights, queens, where restaurants and few street vendors and bangles' shops lining a short section of street aren't considered to be an ethnic community. the 'little' prefix has a special place in urban history and it carries with it stories of settler-narratives, mono-lingual comfort, and marginalized ghettoization. there's a reason that indians from all over the u.s. are known to make a pilgrimage to queens and not curry hill--the variety and authenticity you find in that maze of streets is often heralded as the closest an indian in the american diaspora can get to the homeland they left behind.Link
4. team rainbow. top chef has a rich history of gay pride and while i think their casting director may have been personally scorned by a lesbian in the past, it's always great to see that a good number (this season: 3) of contestants feel comfortable enough on this network or in this industry to wear their sexuality with pride.

5. global citizens. there's some anti-americanism/anti-europeanism brewing in the flat and i'm laying down bets on how bad it's going to get. it's been launched by an alliance between the finnish and the italian making fun of the overweight new-yawkah and he's certainly lashing back. first, since when do finland and italy see eye to eye on anything, except maybe how much they both hate immigration? second, i suppose it's refreshing that the casting department didn't fall back on the old, reliable stereotype of frenchies insulting american chefs. talk about thinking outside the box.

It's definitely going to be an interesting season!
And on top of it all, we have head judge, Tom
Colicchio, introducing us to the concept of being 'fat-fit'--how in god's name does he manage it?


Raj said...

Just awesome!Julie you should take writing seriously.Obviously you are an amazing writer.Loved the thing about the rainbow group.

Tariq said...

I second the props on these categories-- think you should do a regular post-mortem on Thursdays for the rest of the season, including possibly your top five rankings of contestants/dishes...