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The L.A.-centric Season of ‘Top Chef’ Is an Ode, a Memory, and a Reminder

Bravo’s long-running cooking competition kicked off its new season—featuring Los Angeles icons like Union Station, Jitlada, and Osteria Mozza—just four days after the city instituted measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Watching the show now stirs up a complicated mix of emotions.

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The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

The only way to get through self-isolation with my mental health intact, I’ve found, is to treat it like an opportunity. The ability to have such a glass-half-full worldview, even a forced one, is the result of enormous privilege; I’m young, healthy, have a job I’m able to do from home, and don’t have dependents I’m suddenly expected to care for full time. My only obligation through all this is to sit at home and make sure I don’t put others at risk. If that means polluting my friends’ Instagram feeds with ambitious cooking projects to take up the hours, then so be it.

Many of those culinary experiments hinge on the passage of time—the rising of a dough, the collagen breakdown of a braise, the bubbly magic of fermentation—leaving me in search of aids for my patience. Which has led me to a pastime that, as a TV critic, I had previously assumed was a thing of my past: leisure viewing. While a pandemic-induced quarantine doesn’t literally add more hours to the day, it’s about as close as one can get barring a revolution in quantum physics.

At the recommendation of some Ringer colleagues, I settled on the latest season of Top Chef, a venerable reality franchise I’d ardently followed for its first few seasons and then abandoned. Over the 14 years and 17 seasons Top Chef has been on the air, food TV has expanded to include everything from the monastic reverence of Chef’s Table to various experiments with edible marijuana. All the while, Top Chef has stood strong, and an all-stars season set in my adopted home of Los Angeles provided an easy opportunity for reentry—guaranteed talent in a familiar setting. Besides, I’d actually become a semiproficient home cook in my time away from Padma and the gang, giving me a new appreciation for stressed-out chefs asked to make an edible dish out of cotton candy and some berries in 30 minutes or less.

But, like many shows designed as a diversion and transmuted into something else, Top Chef has emerged from post-production as much a symbol as a piece of entertainment. The competition has distinguished itself over the years by choosing finesse over fireworks, assembling a pool of accomplished professionals first and reality stars second. Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard presides over a stable of Chicago restaurants, and won a James Beard Award in 2013; Season 13 alum Kwame Onwuachi now presides over Washington, D.C.’s acclaimed Kith and Kin. Many contestants are successful restaurateurs before they ever step in front of a camera, and far more are graduates of elite fine dining institutions like the French Laundry and Eleven Madison Park.

These accomplishments give Top Chef the clout it needs to overcome its central paradox—a visual representation of a largely nonvisual craft. Project Runway fans can look at an outfit, Voice ones listen to a song. On Top Chef, we only hear about what the food tastes like, and it’s only our trust in the baseline skills of the contestants and the palate of the judges that gives those opinions heft. In addition to cookbook author Padma Lakshmi, Food & Wine editor Gail Simmons, and restaurateur Tom Colicchio, those judges often include culinary heavyweights with reputations independent of the show, from Blue Hill’s Dan Barber to Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert.

Top Chef, in other words, isn’t a canned simulation of the restaurant world. It may be a heightened version with an artificial structure, but the show is very much an organic extension of the high-octane universe it’s trying to depict, a universe with brick-and-mortar outlets viewers can then turn around and patronize. But with the dramatic upheavals of the past two months, this symbiotic relationship has suddenly been scrambled. Top Chef is now the de facto cultural ambassador of a nation in disarray.

The new season of Top Chef premiered on March 19, four days after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an ordinance closing nonessential businesses and mandating restaurants stop serving customers in-house. Overnight, the emergency measure forced thousands of businesses to fundamentally change their operations: going takeout-only, converting to makeshift grocery stores, and often shutting down for the foreseeable future. Thousands of hospitality workers were suddenly out of a job; those left, either in kitchens or along the supply chain, have to balance their livelihoods with exposing themselves to a potentially deadly virus.

The plight of L.A. restaurants mirrors that of establishments across the country. But the unintentional irony of Top Chef gives that larger struggle specificity and poignance. The second episode of this season opened with a brief tribute to Floyd Cardoz, the Indian American chef and Top Chef Masters winner who succumbed to the coronavirus in late March, one of the hospitality world’s highest-profile casualties. A week later, local luminary Nancy Silverton announced she had tested positive, shortly before a challenge partly shot at and based around dishes from her flagship Osteria Mozza. (Silverton had also appeared in the premiere, where she declared one team’s oceanside grill “the meal we expected, and deserved.”)

Through its tour of local landmarks like downtown’s Union Station and buzzier hot spots like Santa Monica’s Birdie G’s, Top Chef has maintained its tradition of making the most out of its temporary headquarters. The peak of this practice, and the season to date, was “The Jonathan Gold Standard,” an extended paean to the late Los Angeles Times critic, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Contestants split into groups and visited the sort of restaurants Gold was famous for championing, which happen to be the very businesses most threatened by the ongoing crisis: small, immigrant-owned shops as boosted by Gold’s platform as they are imperiled by the disruption of an already delicate ecosystem. They’re essential to L.A. as the polyglot mosaic it is, not the bland wasteland outsiders sometimes imagine it to be.

Sourced from Gold’s famous “101” list for the Times, itself a riff on his annual “99” roundup for LA Weekly, Top Chef’s destinations are instantly recognizable to any Angeleno with even perfunctory knowledge of where to eat. Jitlada, the strip mall Thai joint where proprietor Jazz Singsanong rules over the waitlist with an iron fist. (It’s in the background while Adam Driver has a meltdown by the 99 Cent Store in Marriage Story.) Chengdu Taste, Szechuan emporium and crown jewel of the San Gabriel Valley, or SGV, unofficial capital of Chinese food in America. Lasa, the modern Filipino joint in the same Chinatown shopping center as hot chicken sensation Howlin’ Ray’s and cookbook store Now Serving. Mayura, a South Indian spot that serves up Kerala by way of Culver City.

I have my own memories of each of these places. Singsanong has bluntly informed me I wouldn’t be seated until a late friend finally arrived, a tense wait I forgot all about as soon as the first curry showed up. I watched a throng of diners lining up for toothpick lamb last Christmas when I passed Chengdu Taste on the way to a holiday dinner at Dolan’s across the street. A friend who moved out of town chose Lasa for a reunion dinner on a brief trip back; Mayura is on my short list for places to meet friends when I make the borderline cross-country schlep to L.A.’s west side. When I first moved to L.A., I used Gold’s “101” like an atlas, learning the city’s culinary landscape long before I mastered traffic routes, let alone my social life. Top Chef’s producers took a similarly effective shortcut.

Top Chef has always managed to make the unattainable seem accessible, with editing and performances that make you feel like you have a seat at the judges’ table. But through no fault of its own, it can’t pull off the same magic trick for an entire set of rituals. A supply run to the Santa Monica Farmers Market happened to coincide with the week during which many markets in Los Angeles, including my local one, were closed out of concern for social distancing. (Most have reopened with modified floor plans.) Top Chef’s visit to the so-called “Mozzaplex” gave me flashbacks to the many times I’ve taken out-of-towners to Silverton’s pizzeria, patiently explaining how California pizza has its own style distinct from the New York slice. The very knowledge that makes Top Chef such a convincing representation of eating in America also makes it a painful reminder of what’s on hold, and what’s at risk.

These indelible impressions are hardly unique to me; on Top Chef, contestant Melissa King drew on her experiences growing up in the SGV for one of the challenges. But they are deeply personal, and given an added twinge by the uncertainty as to whether these businesses can weather the storm. Even if they survive the pandemic, others like them doubtless won’t. Top Chef is about its own cutthroat competition, occasionally punctuated by amusingly clumsy product placement for Trolls World Tour. It’s unwittingly foreshadowed a far-higher-stakes struggle for limited resources, among businesses that form an emotional cornerstone of our lives.

Top Chef is acutely aware of its role in this emergency—Bravo has aired PSAs before live broadcasts, and along with Ringer podcast host David Chang, Colicchio has become a leading voice in the call for strong and swift government intervention on behalf of restaurants. But with a cause like this, collective action is bound up with personal investments. I want restaurants, in general, to survive. Mostly, I’d kill to be spending an hour on my feet outside Jitlada again.