The reality cooking show Top Chef finished its nineteenth season on June 2. Anita Mannur, author of Intimate Eating, is an avid viewer of the show and offers this guest post. Mannur is Associate Professor of English at Miami University, author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture, and coeditor of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader.
Late last week, I tuned in to watch the season finale of Top Chef with a little more than the usual nervousness I often feel when watching the finale. I have watched all 19 seasons of Top Chef since it began airing in 2006 and have even taken in some of the spin-offs such as Top Chef Masters, Top Chef: Just Desserts and even Top Chef Family Style. I enjoy watching Top Chef because, even though contestants of color get eliminated more often than not, it seems to be the one cooking show that is interested in showcasing food, and not some gimmick around food that would act like seeing people run around a grocery store to collect items is even vaguely interesting. Top Chef showcases innovative and interesting cuisine, often at the hands of talented chefs across the country. The fact that the show is hosted by an Indian American, Padma Lakshmi—who has become a fierce advocate for marginalized peoples and important social issues—makes it even more meaningful. But my love-hate relationship with the show boils down to one simple fact: I find it incredibly frustrating to root for the contestants of color only to see them sent home much earlier than they should be. It is not that the people who win the contest are not talented; rather it is simply a case of wishing that there were more opportunities for chefs of color, and particularly women of color, to thrive in an industry that is dominated by cishet white male chefs. Whenever a person of color wins the season, I am relieved. When one roots for the person of color on reality TV, one is all too familiar with the feeling that they will not win the big prize. So, when they do win, it feels more like a relief than anything else.
This season I was especially excited because there seemed to be a record number of people of color on the show. About two-thirds of the season’s contestants were people of color. Week after week, I watched in surprise to see many of them remain on the show until, by some miracle, there were six remaining contestants—all of whom were people of color. With apologies to Lauren Berlant, every time I watch Top Chef (or for that matter, any reality TV show), I often feel like I am engaging in a form of cruel optimism. Despite knowing better, I always hope against hope that the people of color will not be eliminated. And yet each week, my optimism fades as I see my favorites get eliminated. While it is certainly the case that there have been several people of color who have won Top Chef (and among them several Asian Americans), rarely do Black or Latinx women ever win. Though some may go on to have success in the culinary field, few—if any—get to hear the words, “you are top chef.” To date, no Black or Latinx women have won the title of Top Chef. And frankly, given the ways that Black and Latinx women have shaped America’s culinary history, that is outrageous.
So, it was with considerable surprise and growing interest that I watched Season 19 unfold until, finally, there were six contestants left and every single one of them was a person of color. This moment felt unprecedented. At that point it seemed that it was inevitable that a person of color was going to win Top Chef—the finale would include three chefs of color. I was elated. And then I was reminded of the Top Chef spin-off, Last Chance Kitchen, a 10- to 15-minute show that airs on Bravo.com after the conclusion of each episode. As its title suggests, it is the last chance for eliminated chefs. Each week an eliminated chef competes against a previously eliminated chef. If they survive, they compete against the next eliminated contestant until finally a winner of Last Chance Kitchen is crowned and re-enters the main competition. I began watching LCK, and that old familiar feeling came back as I watched the contestants of color, one after another, lose their second chance until finally a winner was declared. Sarah Welch, a quirky white woman who had been eliminated early in the contest, re-entered Top Chef. While interesting in spirit, the whole premise of LCK seems to be that it offers a second chance to a deserving person. But in a moment when this country offers few second chances to people of color, and when different kinds of subjectivities are under erasure, it felt egregious to see that the concept of “deserving” is rooted in a narrative of talent. The dishes are purportedly tasted blindly, suggesting that a kind of equity is at play. And yet I cannot help but think that this utilizes the same logic as color blindness. What would it look like, in a country that is most certainly not color blind, to be more intentional about accessing a narrative of equity that extends to racial inclusion in determining who deserves a second chance? What if the idea of the “second chance” was not rooted in an apolitical and decontextualized narrative about who usually ascends to positions of power, but in one that would think about the political and affective resonance of having three incredibly deserving chefs of color make it to the end? Why, in the end, is it so unimaginable to have a major cooking competition decide that all its finalists will be people of color?
When Welch returned to the contest, there were five people of color: three African Americans (Ashleigh Shanti, Nick Wallace and Damarr Brown), one Latina (Evelyn Garcia) and one Asian Australian (Buddha Lo). This was unprecedented. In its 16-year history, there had never been this many African Americans left in the contest at this late stage. But then the old patterns reemerged, and one by one, each black chef was eliminated, and it became apparent that the finale would include a Latina woman, an Asian Australian man, and a white woman. Though I personally liked Welch and her quirky humor (and her deep commitment to showcasing different kinds of miso), I was a little disappointed. And to be honest, the finale was beautiful. All three contestants clearly respected one another and were rooting for one another in ways that felt more reminiscent of The Great British Bake Off than say, The Amazing Race. There is a real and palpable comradery among the contestants, and it was apparent that Garcia, Lo and Welch were invested in each other’s success. The expressions of intimacy and care felt genuine and were a welcome change from the backstabbing and snark that one often comes to expect in US-based reality shows and in several of the early seasons of Top Chef.
However, in the last few weeks of the season, I went from feeling excited about the prospects of a finale including only chefs of color to feeling deflated that it was all for naught and that Top Chef was once again merely pandering and would eliminate the remaining contestants of color for spurious reasons. At the end of each season, viewers are often told that the smallest details can send a person home. For chefs of color, that often takes the form of being sent home for not being “true to their origins or heritage,” a standard that is rarely applied to white chefs who are often praised for having knowledge of diverse cuisines.
In the end, the right person (I think) won. Buddha Lo’s food was inventive, took stock of his racial and ethnic heritage and was beautifully plated. But I was also disappointed not to see Garcia win—not just because she is Latina but because she was an exceptional chef in every way. But of course, only one person can win, even if the runners up do not have to hear the odious phrase, “please pack your knives and go.”
To the show’s credit, they made remarkable strides in showcasing so many talented chefs of color. And my guess is that, despite not winning, many of them will go on to have amazing careers. But it remained disappointing to see that it took 19 seasons for the producers of the show to keep six people of color in the running, only to then get rid of them one by one, all the while conveying to the audience that a deserving white person needed to be at the final judging panel. Groundbreaking as it was to have this many contestants of color in one season, it was disappointing that it didn’t go further. To have the show come so close to doing something truly transformative, only to thwart expectations and desires at the last minute, was disappointing.
While I will not stop watching Top Chef anytime soon, it also does not escape my attention that we may not see a season like this again. At the end of the day, it is not too much to ask to see more chefs of color standing in front of the judge’s table as a small, but important, gesture that would remind us that whiteness does not always have to be at the table.
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