Why Top Chef Masters Is So Depressing

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Kelsey McNeal / Bravo / Everett Collection

From left: Chefs Cindy Pawlcyn, Rick Bayless and Ludo Lefebvre compete in the first season of Top Chef Masters

An uneasy, familiar feeling came over me when I watched last week's premiere of Top Chef Masters. Afterward, I had it out in a snarky IM exchange with CNN's Kat Kinsman, but my heart wasn't really in it. There was something melancholy for me about seeing the Top Chef franchise at its lowest ebb, its already ludicrous premise stretched beyond the breaking point. It made me realize how much Top Chef inexplicably matters to me. And it made me wonder why.

Spin-offs are generally weak, pallid things, which rarely live for more than a few months in the network postnatal unit. As spin-offs go, Top Chef Masters, now in its third season, is long-lived — closer to Archie Bunker's Place than The Ropers, say. It will probably limp along for another season or two, a reality-show revenant, before giving up the ghost.

Top Chef itself, of course, has been on the air for a decade now, with no signs of stopping. The basic premise of the show: obscure young cooks striving for fame and recognition compete in a series of random challenges and (hopefully) bicker bitterly along the way. The contest is given legitimacy by the judges, especially Tom Colicchio, whose natural authority and willingness to engage and take the show seriously makes the whole thing work. Top Chef Masters dispenses with both of these advantages. The contestants are already established chefs playing for charity money, so there are no stakes for anyone, and little in the way of backbiting: essentially, it's what you might see at a high-end charity auction. And about as entertaining as a bottle of Nembutal.

But the chefs aren't even the worst thing about Top Chef Masters. The worst part is the judges. Presumably to avoid any professional ill will, the show's producers dispensed with the idea of having an actual chef as a judge, bringing in food writers to arbitrate the victory, and a truly stellar piece of eye candy in hostess Kelly Choi. Choi has since been replaced by the equally telegenic Curtis Stone, a man who seems to have somehow made an entire career of doing nothing but TV reality cooking shows. But unlike Choi, who was wisely kept far from the judging table, Stone is a judge as well as a host, and this, too, robs Top Chef Masters of any hope of drama, or credibility. A French titan like Joël Robuchon or Guy Savoy would have had the chefs, who are all American, quaking in fear; the flab and frivolity would fly away in a moment. The other judges, former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and Saveur's James Oseland, are universally respected in the food world, but they have to work with these guys and so are professionally inhibited from being too mean to them.

Which, I think, is the crux of what I hate about this show. It's all about people — chefs and judges alike — who have already made it. Top Chef got me emotionally involved, over and over, and against my will, with the cast of each season. Some were scrubs and some were stars, but it was never clear if the cream would really rise, and often the show had to send off its most likable and promising stars while dull plug-uglies tottered from episode to episode before finally being expunged.

I had always assumed that I was simply following the race and enjoying my favorites, like Howie "Bulldog" Kleinberg, and openly rooting against the ones I had a grudge against, like Lisa "the Gorgon" Fernandes. Or maybe I just liked making snarky comments, of the kind I made with Kinsman and, before her, Adam Platt at New York magazine. But that wasn't really it either. Because the cooks cared so much about winning, it made you care, and because the judges, especially Colicchio, took food and cooking so seriously, it made you care about that too, even if you weren't in the food world.

People who didn't know better often dismissed Top Chef as a grotesque mockery of cooking, a sign that the food world had utterly sold itself out to the lure of cheap celebrity. But it wasn't (entirely) true. Top Chef was and is the most important link between the culinary world and the real world. You can't really grasp just how insular the food world is. Because everyone works at night, few of us watch television, and even fewer actually follow any kind of news media: not TIME, not CNN, not the New York Times. We all tend to follow a few industry blogs and the Twitter streams of a chosen few chefs and writers, but everything else that happens might as well be in Estonia. Top Chef changed that dynamic. It was the one food reality show that everybody copped to watching, even if it was often with an excuse like "I'm just watching because my boy Dale is in it this season." We all made excuses — mine was that I did it for work — but the truth is that too much of what happens in the food world happens in a vacuum, and a show like Top Chef, which grabbed us emotionally and intellectually, for all its faults, provided a rare bridge between cooks and their customers. To watch Top Chef Masters and feel so removed from it gives me a far different feeling. It's reality TV without even a hint of the reality. It's hard to imagine anybody caring about it. And that just makes me sad.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.