'Top Chef 3': A is for amuse
I watched the season opener of "Top Chef 3: Miami" last night, vaguely hoping that it would be more fun than watching "Hell's Kitchen." (There is no joy in watching Gordon Ramsay's over-scripted brutalization of a bunch of inept child-chefs.) It was fun, and not just because it has far better production values. Because it has something else, something that has been terribly missing from this new breed of reality-competition television shows: irony.
Tom Colicchio, unlike Ramsay, seems to be aware that he's in the middle of something inherently absurd. He lifts his eyebrows and smiles through it, as though permanently amused by the often ridiculous spectacle before him. New host Ted Allen has the tongue-in-cheek thing down too, of course, since irony was pretty much a prerequisite for "Queer Eye." And Padma -- well, Padma's street cred for me comes solely from her status as Mrs. Salman Rushdie. Some appreciation for the absurd just has to rub off over dinner at home with her husband, doesn't it? (Full disclosure: I watched "Top Chef" while scanning my tattered copy of "Midnight's Children" for pickle recipes.)
But the most fun last night came not from watching super-tall Venice boy C.J. literally tower over the other competitors, or Hung, who is a sous chef at Guy Savoy Las Vegas, tower over them figuratively (we'll see; he's my pick to win). Nor did it come from watching Howie neglect to plate his frog legs in time (gasp) or Clay's predictable exit from the show as the first chef told to pack his knives and go. It came, of course, from repeat guest-judge Tony Bourdain. Say what you will about Bourdain, he's the funniest novelist-cum-chef around. And his irony meter is so high as to be unreadable. Poor Clay bore the brunt of much of this ("home cooking, but a home I wouldn't want to live in"; food he might eat in "economy class, Air Cambodia"). Finally, a sense of humor is as much in evidence as all those relentlessly plugged Kenmore products. Now if Alton Brown would just explain irony to the rest of the folks at the Food Network.
-- Amy Scattergood