Assuming you’ve been reading my award-winning [citation pending] Top Chef power rankings every week, you already know that in the first episode of the latest season, which premiered on Thursday, there was a sudden-death final challenge set at a plantation. This season was shot in Charleston, South Carolina, and the final challenge of episode one, between chef Gerald Sombright and chef John Tesar, took place at Boone Hall Plantation, a place which, like many things in the US, once ran on slave labor. To make matters worse, the challenge was between a white guy (Tesar) and a black guy (Sombright), and [SPOILER ALERT] the black guy lost. Yikes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some people were pissed. Or at least, enough people on Twitter complained about it to some of the show’s stars and producers that the Charleston City Paper wrote a piece about it:
Twitter user @mnitach addressed Colicchio with, “Watching first episode Top Chef now. Disgusted that they are filming at a slave plantation, with no context. C’mon @tomcolicchio, why??”
Colicchio responded, “Sorry we offended you. Places like Auschwitz and Boone plantation are open so we don’t forget how heartless people can be.”
“Would you have filmed your cooking show at Auschwitz in front of the ovens?” @mnitach responded. To which Colicchio reminded him that Amazing Race shot at Auschwitz.
That response didn’t sit well with @PutinistaJonez who snapped back at Colicchio, “But you don’t film lighthearted episodes in the kitchens of Auschwitz, do you? Black pain is trivial to you people. You’re monsters.”
To which Colicchio responded, “You people, monsters. That’s helpful.”
In my guide to dealing with Twitter kerfuffles, there’s going to be at least one chapter dedicated to trying to convincing people to try to resist the urge to critique the tone of the people angry at you. Mostly though, Colicchio seemed to listen, and do his best to explain the decision, which is the only thing he really can do.
“I understand how bad this looks which is precisely why I brought it up and am willing to discuss it.”
When asked if he and producers had discussed how to approach the situation of filming at a former slave plantation, he had this to say. “Absolutely, we could have easily cut out where we were shooting and played as a location near a marsh.”
Prior to Top Chef: Charleston’s debut, Colicchio told Post & Courier‘s Hanna Raskin that season 14 would try “to grapple with the racial dimensions of the Lowcountry’s culinary heritage.”
I would hope we can resist the urge to polarize this one, because each side clearly has a point. To black people who’ve become accustomed to having their suffering minimized, filming a cooking show at a plantation (which they’re almost certainly correct in saying that the producers wouldn’t have done at Auschwitz), smacks of another example of why you don’t matter as much. But from a practical sense, it’s hard to know where to draw the line in a country where the White House was built by slaves and in a state that was flying the Confederate flag at the state house until last year. Not shooting anywhere that has a connection to slavery would be pretty limiting. Not to mention, why try to ignore things that actually happened?
Which is a long way of saying, “I can see both sides.” Perhaps the decision not to ignore the fact that South Carolina has plantations was correct, but could’ve been handled… slightly differently.
There’s also the issue of some of the language used in the episode by host Padma Lakshmi, who, rather than actually saying the word “slaves” in introducing viewers to Boone Hall, instead euphemistically refers to them as “those who worked and toiled here.” In a weirdly tone-deaf moment, Lakshmi then looks to Sombright and asks “Gerald, what’s going through your mind right now?” [Eater]
Yes, that certainly could’ve been edited better.