Top Chef returns for its 16th season this week, and while it’s easy to make fun of Top Chef (and fun!), it’s still the best food competition show on television. Dare I say, it’s the best competition show on television, period. Whereas the world can only bear so many iterations of “The Voice,” we have restaurants on every corner. This is America, we can always eat more food. I have to think that’s part of the reason the format still hasn’t gotten stale for me. That and the absence of Adam Levine. That’s also important.
In any case, I’ve seen every episode, and it never ceases to amaze me how many cheftestants seem to arrive on the show with either no prior knowledge of how to play the game or a conviction that they’re the one who’s going to undo 16 years of competition show precedent. I yell at the television more during Top Chef than I do watching sports. STORE-BOUGHT PASTA, ARE YOU INSANE?!
Maybe the chefs were too busy working 70-hour weeks to soak in every previous episode, but for any aspiring winner, you avoid research at your peril. Take it from me, the couch potato. Here, I share my vast and abiding knowledge of Top Chef lore for the benefit of all this season’s cheftestants (I suspect Andy Cohen came up with this word).
The 10 keys for how to get kicked off early:
1. Use truffle oil
Ten years ago, truffle oil was the hot new ingredient, a way to add that expensive truffle taste with a few cents worth of flavored olive oil. Chefs went overboard, and the backlash was swift. These days, TV chefs rail against truffle oil like it murdered their parents. Frankly it smacks of overcompensation. Anyway, I’m sure there’s a place for truffle oil, especially if you’re a clever chef, but that ain’t the hill you want to die on.
2. Make risotto
A little higher on the reward/risk ratio than truffle oil, is risotto. Countless contestants have been sacrificed to the Gods of arborio rice. Risotto is the perfect storm of finicky and labor intensive to cook, and inspiring of rigidly provincial serving guidelines the way only Italian dishes truly can be (has to be loose! it should spread out on the plate! it has to be al dente! it can’t be mushy!). Also, it’s rarely a knock-your-socks-off dish, even when done perfectly.
3. Break out the molecular gastronomy kit (make a powder, make a gel, make a suspension…)
Do the judges ever like molecular stuff? Someone reaching for the soy lecithin is usually a good sign that that person’s getting canned at the end of the episode. An even surer sign is anyone making a dust, a powder, a sand, etc. Frankly, this should be intuitive. Oooh, you turned this delicious oil/velvety sauce into fine powder that I can accidentally inhale when I try to eat? What a neat trick! Next, can you give me the taste of a taco in the shape of a briar patch?
4. Make a foam
Foams aren’t as surefire a way to get booted off as powders or gels, as evidenced by Marcel “The Foam King” Vigneron making it all the way to the finals in Season 2 where he was murdered by Ilan Hall in a hail of tiny bubbles. But if you are making a foam, maybe ask yourself… why? No human being on Earth has ever uttered the words “Bro, c’mere, you gotta try this foam.”
5. Make a duo, a trio, a quartet…
If you’re asked to make a dish, you don’t get extra credit for making two. In fact, if 10 people all make something good, the judges will be looking for the first person to make some trivial “mistake,” like soggy crickets or under-bludgeoned lamb face. The more you try to make, the more likely you are to screw something up. Make one lamb face, dummy. Bludgeon it like grandma taught.
6. Incorporate dessert flavors into your savory dish
Ooh, you made vanilla bean-crusted uni with salted caramel antelope confit? How novel! If Top Chef goes an entire season without anyone saying “we eat with our eyes first,” it will be a miracle, but the worst part of that isn’t that it’s a cliché, it’s that it’s not even really true. We eat with our ears first. And you rarely succeed opening with an amuse bouche of “well that sounds f*ckin’ weird.”
7. Agree to captain Restaurant Wars
The one recurring challenge that comes back every season is “restaurant wars,” where the contestants split into teams of two and open dueling restaurants. Makes sense, right? Except each team needs a captain, and the losing side’s captain always goes down with the ship.
So why would anyone want that job? Well, by now, most of them don’t. In an individual competition, the worst thing you can do is start taking responsibility for other people’s failings. Likewise, if you find yourself helping other people finish their dishes thinking that’s going to impress the judges… well, go to the bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror, and repeat “I’m not here to make friends” ten times. It’s an old reality show prayer.
8. Stand by your dish
One of my favorite Top Chef clichés is the judges taking 15 minutes to tell a chef all the reasons they hated their dish. Then when the contestant finally gets a chance to talk, they say “I stand by my dish.”
Look, dummy, there’s no appeals process here. You don’t get credit for consistency. HAVEN’T YOU SEEN WHAT PADMA DOES TO PEOPLE WHO DISAGREE WITH HER? NEVER DEFY A LAKSHMI!
Seriously though, just agree with everything they say, apologize profusely, and then carefully explain why it’s someone else’s fault. Maybe cut off a pinky for good measure. Top Chef is like any work environment. Think back to all the jobs you’ve had and try to figure out how many times disagreeing with your boss’s dumb opinion has worked out well.
9. Cook something healthy
In the early seasons, there would always be some personal chef/diet guru contestant who would show up bragging about their zesty low-cal take on a fried pork dish during a comfort food challenge. They never last more than two episodes. Cooking healthy is great and all, but it’s not a fitness show. Tom Colicchio runs a chain of steak houses, I guarantee he’s not going to be swayed by the dish’s HDL/LDL ratio.
10. Show up with no dessert experience
You’re going to have to make dessert at some point, best to accept it now. I don’t like cooking them either, no one does. Just learn a few classics and gird yourself for the inevitable phrase “I don’t really like sweet desserts, but….”
That’s a funny thing food show judges like to say. Look, I don’t know what it means either. Just make them a fancy ice cream and hope for the best.
That’s it! You don’t have to follow these rules in order to win, but you should at least know them. Now, may the cheftestant with the most extreme hairstyle/beard combo and/or most badass food-related forearm tattoo win. Remember, today’s cheftestant is tomorrow’s Bravolebrity. Oh, that reminds me, another of the requirements is that at some point, you’re going to have to pretend Andy Cohen is funny. Godspeed.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.