Top Chef: A Beloved Recipe Ruined?

06/13/2007 10:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm eagerly awaiting the new season of Top Chef, but mixed in with my anticipation is an ominous sense that the show -- heretofore remarkably impervious to the clichés of reality TV -- could be embarking on a slippery slope to becoming typical reality TV fare: which is to say, over-spiced slop.

For one, the promos for season three show have Ted Allen as a fourth host. I have no particular objection to Ted Allen, but I think that might be one too many judges. After they toss in a guest host each week, viewers will get about three seconds worth of judging from each of them. Unfortunate, since one of the enjoyable aspects of Top Chef is the critiques from Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons; whether laudatory or withering, they were thoughtful comments on each plate.

Secondly, the promos for season three feature some very attractive people.

I'm not suggesting attractive people can't cook. (Eric Ripert, call me.) But please, for a minute, compare season one of MTV's The Real World with the latest season of The Real World. (Or the last season of Real you might have watched.) The casts have become exponentially more attractive...and more odious. It might be watchable in a surreal, "Am I hallucinating?" sort of way, but that's it.

True, the guys weren't conventional eye-candy in the promos for season three of Top Chef. They were a different type of compelling: beefy slabs of machismo stomping around the kitchen, ready to fight. The ladies? More predictable: cue steaming shot of a bikini clad beauty slithering into a hot tub. One promo has a woman with a British accent saying, "If you don't like cooking, get the HELL out of the kitchen!" Another has two mohawked chefs glaring at each other like pugilists.

Manly-men locking horns? Check. Babes in the hot tub? Check. Supercilious Brits? Check. Angry punks with gravity defying hairstyles? Check! The clichés have begun.

Mostly Top Chef has been a reality show less about gimmicks and more about food. If the contestants fought, it was usually over something food related. But season two had some ominous progressions towards hackneyed reality shorthands. The showdown between Marcel and Elan felt contrived: fan favorite (after Sam) pitted against Reality Show Villain.

But that prompts me to admit that my bitterness at recent Top Chef trends stems from something much more embarrassing.

I didn't mind Marcel that much! Poor evil Marcel of the foam empire. He seemed more foolish than a force of culinary malevolence. He rapped on camera...about cooking...repeatedly. Clearly not reality TV savvy, or savvy at all. Let me repeat: he rapped on camera. Then, after seeing season two, he rapped about cooking on the reunion special.

Elan was more likable but I was surprised when he won. I'm sure he's a great chef, and he did win the most challenges, and as soon as he opens a place, I'll be there. But I caught a rerun of the finale this Saturday, and it seemed like the judges kept saying that Marcel's meal was more thoughtful, professional, creative and intelligent. They kept saying that Elan was limited to only Spanish cuisine.

Having Elan win seemed like a nod to what they thought the viewers would want. And Elan seemed a little too eager to be a Celebrity. On the reunion show I caught on Saturday, where some chefs from season one cooked off against chefs from season two, Harold, the winner of season one, came in looking rumpled, tired, a bit downtrodden and kind of harried. Basically like he needed a nap. Which is to say, he looked like a chef opening his first restaurant.

Elan rolled in with a flashy haircut, new eyeglasses and said, when asked about what he is doing, something along the lines of -- "Oh, I've received offers, but they're just too big...I'd like to do something small for my first place." Then he was trounced by Harold.

In a straight-up comparison between the winners of the two seasons, it seems like personality became more important than cooking. I hope this trend doesn't continue into season three. I will, of course, be tuning in.