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Top Chef’s soul problem, and how Roy Choi can help the show find it

As Top Chef New Orleans starts its two-part finale tonight to wrap up its 11th season, it became clear to me that it’s a solid show, but no longer must-watch. The series isn’t quite as bad yet as its short-lived spin-off Top Chef Just Desserts became with its crazy, rigid formula, but it’s getting there.

This season used New Orleans very well, and also added some interesting elements, primarily the way it allowed the chefs to watch the judges’ deliberations. But it has also tried to squeeze drama from two dick chefs, Nicholas and Carlos, whose dickishness is very familiar. Meanwhile, Padma is increasingly irritable compared to her previous season self, and not in a good way. While Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons do a fine job of judging, but it’s also obvious they’ve been doing this for a while, because at the very least, their critiques lack surprise.

Catching up with the show, I watched the Jan. 15 episode, which had Roy Choi as a guest judge for the quickfire challenge. He appeared last season, cooking a meal with Emeril for the finalists, and while they were eating, told an incredibly moving story about how Emeril caused him to turn his life around–a revelation that was a surprise to Emeril and that became the best moment of the season.

“I was a scumbag, straight up you did not want to meet me on the street. I was really at a bad place and this dude was on the TV, man,” Roy said. “Me?” Emeril asked. Roy continued, “I was lying there and that’s when Emeril popped out of the TV and just slapped me across the face.”

This season, after judging the po’boy sandwiches the chefs made for the quickfire challenge, he made the case for why he should be cast as a permanent judge. He told the chefs, “You all fucked this shit up, man.”

I thought he was maybe joking, but he was dead serious: He clearly cared about this challenge and was quite disappointed, a show of emotion we rarely see from the judges. “If you were in my kitchen, man, this would be a point where we go in the walk in and start straight talking,” he said. “You guys started thinking too much as chefs. You gotta find your soul in your food right now.”

That’s what Top Chef desperately needs: more passion and emotion and heart and caring from Roy Choi and people like him, and to find its soul amid all the pop-up graphics and product placement.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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