If you want to understand the disconnect between watching cooking shows and wanting to cook, get this: Schwan's Home Service is offering Top Chef--branded frozen meals. The idea that hard-core fans who study contestants' knife skills every week would choose to order from a giant company that's been delivering frozen food to rural America for 57 years doesn't surprise Harry Balzer, who tracks food trends for the market-research firm NPD Group. "You're going to eat four to five times today, and the one thing I know you're going to do is try to get someone else to prepare those meals," he says, noting that after two decades of no growth, microwave use has gone up 20% during the past three years.
Still, the brand extension surprised Lee Anne Wong, who, as a contestant in Season 1, created the chicken in red curry sauce that Schwan's is now eager to pack in dry ice and leave on people's doorsteps. "We're going to film with [French culinary legend] Joël Robuchon and then put out some frozen dinners?" asks Wong, who has just finished her fifth season as a culinary producer on the show. Her honesty about Bravo's branding deal may have something to do with the fact that neither she nor the five other Top Chef contestants whose recipes and faces are being used by Schwan's are getting paid for them. As for how the meals taste, she says, "They're not bad. Of course, mine was better, and the vegetables weren't overcooked."
I ordered all five of Schwan's Top Chef meals--which cost $10 to $12 each--and invited my friend Jonathan Karsh, a reality-show producer and an excellent home cook, to try them. The first thing we noticed was how right Balzer was about the way we embrace prepared meals. Several times I said I had better "start cooking" when I meant "start microwaving." I was able to open the boxes with a knife from the Top Chef cutlery set the show sent me and pair the food with a Top Chef--branded Quickfire cabernet sauvignon (which was surprisingly good and, at $19, surprisingly expensive). I was expecting a Top Chef robot to feed me, carry me to the TV and make me watch the show.
For frozen food, it was pretty good. The polenta with braised meatballs, concocted by the current season's Kevin Gillespie, was particularly good. The polenta was better than what I make, the tomato sauce better than a lot of jarred sauces, and the cauliflower--though a weird glop that was totally unlike cauliflower--kind of compelling.
But Karsh, who is a huge fan of the show and had just watched Gillespie make that dish on TV a few days earlier, didn't see it that way. "I wish I could taste what I see on TV," he said. "They used fresh ingredients. By the time this gets to you, it's a salty mush. I'm sure Kevin didn't put guar gum in it."
But Karsh isn't the audience. Yes, he's both the hard-core fan Bravo wants to give a fuller experience to and the urban consumer Schwan's is trying to expand to. But he cooks. The Top Chef deal is targeting people who don't have time to cook but do have time to watch TV. It's going to make a fortune.