Alton on the Attack

Alton Brown—a gentleman’s gentleman, and one of the most genuinely charming personalities on television—seems to be letting the business get to him. While pumping up The Next Iron Chef, he bares his fangs in an interview with blogger/journalist Andrea Strong.

SB: Do you watch reality food TV like Hell’s Kitchen or Top Chef?

Alton: I don’t like them. I think Gordon Ramsey [sic] is wussy. I’d like ten minutes in the back of a dark taxi with him. (Laughs.) I think reality food shows are made with people who don’t know or have respect for food whatsoever.

This is an easy sentiment to toss off, particularly in light of Ramsay’s recent string of “how real is it?” incidents. But it makes a reader wonder: Has Brown actually watched the shows he’s criticizing? Top Chef regularly lines up a murderer’s row of world-class chefs and wine experts to serve as judges; it’s a rare opportunity for the home viewer to see how Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque or AndrĂ© Soltner of the French Culinary Institute might go about analyzing dinner.

SB: Are there any similarities between Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef?

Alton: The only comparison to Top Chef is that one or two chefs get eliminated after each round. Otherwise, there are no similarities. The Next Iron Chef is the first time a show has been made that captures the good part of reality TV with high-end culinary credibility. Most of the people on Top Chef are barely out of Denny’s. They are of marginal experience and talent.

Granted that Top Chef-ers aren’t all working at the French Laundry, but most have spent years earning their keep at positions at the executive chef/executive sous-chef level in respected restaurants. And if you want “high-end culinary credibility,” having Beard Award winner Tom Colicchio on your payroll certainly helps the cause. That said, putting down the professional qualifications of contestants also misses the point of the show. Top Chef has always been about capturing the excitement of ambitious chefs on the rise by having them cook under challenging and extremely stressful conditions; while “marginal experience” is true in some cases, “marginal talent” is catty, and, worse, mostly inaccurate.

Why do we watch food television? To be entertained, to feel plugged into the culture at large, and to learn about food. To insinuate that Top Chef fails as a food program because its contestants lack sufficiently prestigious credentials utterly misses the point of its appeal—and its legitimate value.