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Redesigning Top Chef Season 5

I've watched "Top Chef" quite a bit since season 3 in Miami and I think the main probelm with Season 5 has been that it lacks the character of the NYC area. Episode 1 tried to get the people out to the different boroughs and areas, but aside from that experiment/challenge, it is rather dull and lackluster. Furthermore, aside from the contestants, the judges comments and guest judges have been insipid.

If you were to redesign the show and truly make it Top Chef NY, what sort of challenges would you come up with to truly make it Top Chef NY and not a gentrified 2009 Bravo version?

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  1. Get them out of WF and let them shop in the small shops, independent purveyors of different specialty foods, different ethnic shops. They did it for the first episode but many contestants didn't use it well. Other than Episode 1, this season could have been shot anywhere. Stop the product placement challenges--does a chef really need to be able to cook with Diet Dr. Pepper? It makes the challenges forced...you can see the producers' heads turn, "Our sponsors are Diet Dr. Pepper, Quaker Oatmeal, Gladware...how can we incorporate it in a thematic challenge?"

    3 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      The product placement is getting really intrusive.

      I like the idea of using small, independent, ethnic providers. Also more "organic" challenges, i.e., things that a real chef would have to deal with, like the fish intended for tonight's dinner has gone bad, so what else can I cook with what's on hand?

      1. re: chowser

        While I agree it would be a good idea to get out of Whole Foods, I would point out that the Chicago season did not take advantage of the vast range of ethnic markets in the Chicago area either (I've lived in NY and Chicago and there are a lot more in Chicago). What the Chicago season did was to stage episodes that took advantage of typical Chicago settings - a Bears game, a neighborhood block party, etc. They're not doing that in NY and I agree it looks like they could have shot the show anywhere. I think one reason is that given the time of year the show was going to be aired, they decided to do more seasonal themes - Thanksgiving, Christmas - which just look incongruous. They should have done more to give you a sense of the city.

        1. re: rjka

          Even the seasonal theme bothers me. Why pretend it's Christmas or Thanksgiving when they filmed just because it would be when aired? There will also be the lag time in filming. It was odd to have the Christmas challenge (or was it Thanksgiving, I can't remember anymore) followed by the summer outdoors seasonal local challenge. Just go with whatever season it is. And, again, in Chicago, it would have been great if they'd taken advantage of the local markets. But, then again, it's about product placement and WF must have paid to be front and center.

      2. There is no sense of city.
        It hasn't been a high priority before, and it isn't now. Nor will it be in the future, until a local mentor is brought in to help with the planning. It would have to be real sincere efforts at showing a city.
        I could see a New Orleans chef doing it easily.
        But in many cities, the chefs aren't that tied to where they are cooking and for more money would move elsewhere. And that applies to the show, sadly.

        1 Reply
        1. re: shallots

          "I could see a New Orleans chef doing it easily. "

          Bring it on! We have four seasons: oyster, crawfish, crab and shrimp...the weather stays the same, so no continuity problems here.

        2. i think we're all saying pretty much the same thing - we'd like to see it a bit more NY-centric as opposed to a show that could have been filmed in Anytown, USA.

          personally i wish they'd done a challenge that involved buying & preparing ingredients from the U Sq. Greenmarket, with the stipulation that they use a minimum number or proportion of ingredients from NY purveyors/sources.

          1. I know your question asked how to truly make it Top Chef NY, but I don't think that's the totality of the problem this season. I think there are too many team challenges, and honestly, the chefs seem a whole lot less inspired and talented on the whole. Think back to Season 1, with Harold, Tiffani, Lee Anne, Dave, and even Stephen. Their food just seemed so interesting and it seemed they really took a lot of chances. This season, so many of the dishes seem downright boring, and everyone seems to be playing it safe - maybe just trying to stay in the game instead of trying to impress. Or maybe it's because Season 1 was the start of something new, and now it all seems like old hat. Also, I miss Bourdain. So I'm not sure if injecting more NYC into the show would have helped much.

            1. While I also would have loved to see more challenges using independent stores and less product placement, Whole Foods and Diet Dr. Pepper pays the bills. I do agree with the notion that they should be out in NYC more than doing shows like the Foo Fighters in Rochester and Gail's bridal shower. I would love to see a street cart challenge. I'm sure there are some who would argue that it's already been done in Season 1. But there's no law saying that you can't do the same challenge again. They do restaurant wars every year. Street food is an important part of the NYC food scene. Or maybe they can take typical street food (hot dogs, pretzels, halal chicken, falafel) and make an upscale dish. Or maybe one of those Korean deli salad bar by the pound challenges -- when I look at some of those dishes, I'm wondering what they were thinking as they have all these dishes that should never be sitting out all day on a warming tray. The challenge perhaps may have been to comprise of decent dishes that would stand the test of time and be high profit items. Or do Football Squares with bagels or coffee (even if it's from a big corporation like Sara Lee, Lender's or Dunkin Donuts -- you know, to pay the bills) instead of oats. Or perhaps another variation of a fusion challenge they did on Season 1. And while not totally New York, I would love to see a vegetarian challenge at some point in Top Chef. And I agree with GHG that a Union Square market challenge would be a good one as well.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Miss Needle

                Product placement is one thing but they don't have an American Idols segment with the constestants singing songs about Coke and being judged for it. Or, if they want, let them film a mini-commercial like the Idols do for Ford. Just keep it out of the challenges.

                1. re: chowser

                  Oh my! I've never watched American Idol so I have no clue that sort of stuff went on. While not PBS, Top Chef is definitely a step above most reality shows.

                2. re: Miss Needle

                  how about a subliminal product placement challenge and let the viewers text in their guesses, aided by scratch and sniff cards for clues to the ingredients...J/K

                  1. re: edible complex

                    Ha ha. Actually, I read somewhere that we (the audience) will have a hand in choosing what challenges future contestants will be involved in. Perhaps by Season 10 (if it lasts that long), your wish may come true. : )

                3. Has there been any indication that there will be a Season 6? If so, I'm hoping that they will either bring some fresh ideas or new direction to the show. Everything just seems so stale this season from the contestants, challenges, and judges. I read someplace that Pepin and Lidia were supposed to judge. Perhaps soon? I like Colicchio, but his role and commentary as the main judge is tired. Does anybody ever wonder if some of the chefs were to face him in some challenges who would come out on top? Just a thought.

                  I like the suggestion above about NO as the location as well as possibly Montréal, Toronto, Seattle, or Portland.

                  Happy Viewing.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: vinhotinto75

                    Jacques Pepin is a guest judge next week.

                  2. Just some random thoughts; What if the actual format of the show was changed? Start off with fewer contestant chefs. Don't have eliminations or send the chefs home. Keep a running score of the how well the chefs do every challenge. If each show's challenges are judged by at least one different guest judge, along with the regulars, the scores will hopefully be (or at least perceived to be) fairer come the series finale, which would eliminate some of the problems I've seen this season. Plus, hopefully, we would see better or at least more interesting dishes.

                    Also (and I don't know how this might work unless all the chefs were worked in the same city like a NY, New Orleans, etc.), I'd love to see the chefs cut loose one episode so we could see them using their own resources, purveyors, whatever to create their signature dishes. Again, just some random thoughts.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: blackoak

                      Most of these chefs come from different traditions, so why not have them go off for one day to learn from a master chef in another cuisine. Say all the chefs taking a master class form a classic Chinese chef, or Indian or Russian, Then have them come up with something that reflects what they had learned.

                      The thing that have bugged me for a while, but especially this season is the lack of respect some of these people have for cuisine other than the one they happen to be trained in. So this would force them to learn and think in other frames.

                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        That's a great idea. It would show how quickly they learn. I like improvisation, too--like Stephan when his freezer didn't work, he was able to pull it together, unlike Carla who just let it go. When something goes wrong, fix it. I thought it was impressive the way Hosea and Radhika (and everyone pulling together) were able to fix their main course when the refrigerator broke.

                        This season particularly, the cheftestants seem to fall back to same old, same old. They could restrict the number of times you make a specific dish, eg seared scallops, ravioli, pureed cauliflower. They'd have to think, do I want to use my special dish this time, or save it for a future challenge? Nothing stops someone from doing the same thing week after week, if he/she does it well.

                      2. re: blackoak

                        That's not a bad idea - it seems like contestants have watched and rewatched all the previous seasons and now come in with strategies. The oft mentioned 'playing not to lose' would be taken care of by a such a shakeup.

                      3. One of the things I liked about TC was that fact that they did go to different cities. To me at least it seems that this season focuses less on the uniqueness of the city than in seasons past. Seems they spent more time talking about Quaker Oats than NYC. More time has been spent in WF than out on the street. True they get 'promotional consideration' for all of the product placement, But certainly costs could also be off set by taking full advantage of a city's film office. I know in New York they work very hard at encouraging Film and television filming around the city.

                        If they really want to save money just set up studio space in some random place with cheep rent and a Whole Foods.

                        Perhaps the show has become a victim of their own success. They have to film indoors as people are watching their movements and keeping an eye out for who is still around.

                        And yes the product placement seems to be really getting out of hand.

                        1. Sorry, long rant here.

                          I still think the main problem with the show since season one is that we never really get much background about the cheftestants and their style of cooking. The only real exception has been with the molecular gastronomy practitioners. In season one, the chefs came in and talked about what they did a bit more, so we not only saw Chef A versus Chef B, but also saw the contrasting styles come out. I know it's cliched, but showing a "signature dish" as the first challenge helps us get to know the cheftestants in a way that most of the challenges this year did not. (I think they realized that was a weakness and sent everyone back to do the "do what you want" challenge after Christmas, but even that had some limitations.)

                          What I would like to see on the show is a "Road to Top Chef" episode like they do with Project Runway. Do an hour introducing the audience to the chefs that not only tells us their names, but also shows us where they work and what they make. Let's see the guy on the line as opposed to the executive chef. Let's see the type of food the organic caterer makes versus the sous chef at the Michelin 3-star restaurant. Knowing that background will set the stage for the season.

                          I also want them to cut out doing so many catering challenges. Let's see what the chefs can do with their own ingenuity with fascinating ingredients (albeit on a budget) in typical restaurant fashion -- where they are cooking for a few people at a time, not wheeling out trays or lunch boxes. And give them more time to shop and prep. No chef has to come up with a dish, shop, and prep in 2-3 hours. Good chefs plan, which is never an option in Top Chef now. (I seem to recall in Season One that the Chefs sometimes had overnight to think of what they would make, which I think would be a nice improvement.) I want to see what the cheftestants are capable of coming up with when they have some freedom -- like Harold, Luanne, Tiffany, and even Steven were able to do. The limited sourcing at Whole Foods is a huge restriction on what they can do, so why not vary the sources? I can't believe New York lacks daily Farmers' Markets. So why not let them do the quickfire, get the assignment, plan, and then do early morning shopping -- with an hour at a farmers market and an hour at a butcher/fishmonger/grocery store? It's not like that would destroy the flow of the show.

                          As for the product placement, it has run amok. Do you remember the convenience store challenge in Season One? All the cheftestants had to make a meal out of stuff they bought at a gas station store? That was the rare challenge back then, but it now feels like the rule for quickfires.

                          1. I have a question with regard to the superbowl show. What exactly was the "home team" supposed to gain by winning the challenge, other than fame and glory :) ? It seemed like some of the later ones were more worried about the team than about losing to their one-on-one competitor, while losing the one-on-one was the *only* thing that was going to get you on the chopping block. In this episode I simply did not get the point of the team challenge.

                            1. I would like to see (in this order) Top Chef New Orleans, Montreal, Portland.

                              Totally agree that using location would be a good idea...another pizza challenge, many more Union Sq Greenmarket trips, cook from a CSA box, or at a community farming project like Added-Value.org...Brighton Beach Russian supermarket -- but make them all work with the same ingredients instead of jamming it all into that one Ethnic show.
                              How about dropping them in a dim sum place one Sunday morning?

                              I like the X ingredient ones -- even oatmeal. And skills challenges, like cutting up whatevers.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: pitu

                                I know there are many people who'd like to see them film in Montreal (for the food factor), but it being a U.S.-based show, I'm thinking they're not going to go out of the Lower 48.

                                What about the Southwest? Phoenix/Tucson? Or the Deep South like Savannah?

                                1. re: LindaWhit

                                  Well, maybe out of the lower 48, but not anywhere they have to deal with passports. Finals have been in Hawaii and PR.

                                2. re: pitu

                                  Seeing the chef's reaction to breaking down eel, I think a great new challenge would be to do an out of the ordinary challenge, a la Iron Chef. Eel is a good place to start, here is yourt protein, deal with it.

                                  Or, have a team challenge like giving them a whole hog and then giving them lots of extra points for using trotters, brains, lungs, intestines etc. and docking points for using the same old same old.

                                  1. re: Phaedrus

                                    Remember the surf-and-turf challenge with Bourdain? They did get some pretty unusual proteins to work with there, although each contestant worked with a different protein. It would be interesting to see them all have to work with the same protein.

                                3. The cabbie lunch challenge along the lines of the Chicago Police challenge, Make some healthful food for those intrepid cabbies.

                                  The Broadway challenge. Cook for the cast and crew of any Broadway show. Dessert for the Mary Poppins gang using only a teaspoon of sugar? Melding Greek and Swedish food for the Mamma Mia folks?

                                  The Kosher challenge. That would throw them a real loop.

                                  Perhaps they should just throw all product placement into one challenge. The Diet Dr. Pepper/Glad Storage/Quaker Oats/GE Appliances challenge. Winner gets a gift certificate to TGI Fridays.

                                  To my mind it seems like the producers chose New York for convenience of the judges and gave no thought to how they could incorporate NYC into the show. That became obvious with the silly Foo Fighters episode.

                                  This is more along the lines of a wholesale revamp of Top Chef, not just Top Chef New York City:
                                  Replace Gail with Ted Allen. This would get Ted out of those wretched FN shows and I can live without Gail who adds little to the discourse. It seems like the editors struggle to add in Gail lines. Sometimes it’s like she is filming a completely different episode from everyone else. Her replacement doesn’t have to be Ted. Anybody who unlike Gail, can form and articulate complete thoughts will do. Actually you could replace Gail with a seasonal judge from the city in which they are filming.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: MplsM ary

                                    I definitely like your Broadway challenge - that would have been an excellent one!

                                    1. re: MplsM ary

                                      How about replacing Gail with *anyone*? Agree agree agree. She's Top Chef's answer to Paula Abdul...

                                      I also agree with vinhotinto75: "I like Colicchio, but his role and commentary as the main judge is tired. Does anybody ever wonder if some of the chefs were to face him in some challenges who would come out on top? Just a thought."
                                      ...I say put Colicchio, Ted, Gail, Padma, Toby Young, and Eric Ripert in a quicky mart (sans makeup) with $20 bucks. Have 'em create a gourmet meal with a microwave and coffee pot hot-plate then judge (criticize) their $hit plates...

                                      1. re: MplsM ary

                                        Cabbie lunch would be a great idea. Something tasty they could eat with one hand. Great ideas. ROTFL, loved this:

                                        "Perhaps they should just throw all product placement into one challenge. The Diet Dr. Pepper/Glad Storage/Quaker Oats/GE Appliances challenge. Winner gets a gift certificate to TGI Fridays"

                                      2. I feel like many of the contestants this season haven't been up to par with contestants in earlier seasons - especially the first few seasons. The mind boggles on how someone like Melissa or Leah would make it to a show titled "Top Chef." To me this is the main problem with the show this season. Imaginative, skilled chefs would have been able to do something, even during a Cheez Whiz Quickfire Challenge. Most of these guys can hardly keep it together when given fresh products and a mere request to "make something that wows the judges."

                                        Please, for the love of foie gras, please, please, please do not bring back that insufferable Toby Young next season. His labored attempts at being witty are beyond inane. Everything about him screams "I'm trying too hard!" - from the studied look of surliness he always maintains to the constipated delivery of his stupid remarks. Has he said anything useful so far this season? Fennel tastes like anise? Truly? The mind boggles...

                                        1. On Project Runway, before the finale, Tim Gunn, who is sort of the Padma, goes to the finalists homes to see what they're doing with their collections. I think Padma and Tom should go to the restaurants of the finalists. It wouldn't really add anything to the competition and I'd rather not be bothered with their personal lives, but I would like to see where and how they really cook and what they'd serve to Padma and Tom as their guests instead of as their judges.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: silvergirl

                                            (Now that Ilan's history) Instead of sending Tom and Padma around, send the previous Top Chef. The winners have the enthusiasm as well as the intelligence to ask questions.
                                            For some contestants who are out of work, just a meal in their home kitchen would be a pleasure to watch.

                                            1. re: silvergirl

                                              To be fair, Tim Gunn seems to know something about clothing. Padma seems to know nothing whatsoever!

                                              1. re: StewieBoy

                                                also Tim Gunn isn't exactly padma, since (I don't think) he votes, and he gives a fair bit of advice in the "work room". He's more of a buddy than padma is. I'm not sure what padma's role is other than apparently looking really cute.

                                                1. re: DGresh

                                                  Padma has the Heidi Klum role. Colicchio has the Tim Gunn role, except he's not allowed to give advice, which is curious, but since Colicchio does vote, I surmise this is why he can't give advice.