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The problems with Top Chef Charleston’s visit to a plantation

Top Chef Charleston’s season premiere last week introduced the season’s twist, and introduced the city of Charleston by holding the first elimination challenge at Boone Hall Plantation, where a chef who happens to be the descendent of slaves, Gerald Sombright, lost to a white man, John Tesar.

At the very least, this did not look good, and however well-intentioned Top Chef was about presenting Charleston’s history, the production, the editing, and the show’s stars made some regrettable errors.

The episode prompted strong reactions. One person wrote to head judge Tom Colicchio on Twitter, “you don’t film lighthearted episodes in the kitchens of Auschwitz, do you? Black pain is trivial to you people. You’re monsters.”

Another person wrote to Tom that “having a sudden death quick fire…on a plantation….where black bodies were abused and worked to death for a profit.”

Tom Colicchio responded to that criticism and defended the show’s intentions, but he has also defended those who are criticizing it. One person called critics of the episode “whiners” who “weren’t even ever affected by slavery,” and Tom responded by writing, “our entire country has been negatively impacted because of slavery. POC experience greater than you or I can imagine.”

In another response, Tom wrote, “Sorry we offended you. Places like Auschwitz and Boone plantation are open so we don’t forget how heartless people can be.”

The problem, of course, is that Top Chef itself seemed heartless by using a plantation—the location of so much pain and suffering—as a backdrop for a reality TV challenge.

Problem #1: the location

The first problem was choosing a plantation as the location for an elimination challenge. Top Chef has visited locations for various reasons, not just as hosts for challenges, and could have included the plantation without also holding a trivial competition there. If their goal was strictly education and acknowledgement of Charleston’s history, they could have done more to separate the visit from the competition.

Also, the plantation they chose doesn’t quite place its history front and center. Boone Hall does have an exhibit about “Black History in America,” but that is not mentioned in any text on the home page or about page. Instead, its web site calls identifies the place as “America’s most photographed plantation.”

While the web site doesn’t even mention slavery, it does emphasize the oak trees and their “spectacular approach” that “symbolizes southern heritage and will take root in your memory for many years to come.”

Problem #2: manipulative editing

The show introduced the location rather thoughtfully, with a long car ride to the challenge location. Gerald and John were riding together, looking out the windows, and John said, “Crazy, this is where slaves lived.” Gerald replied, “I know.” Gerald also said, “I like how this town doesn’t shy away from history. Like they embrace it as part of the culture.” John replied, “They should embrace it.”

Then the show made a major mistake. Gerald said, “The place is so beautiful, but also this is a place that people were treated less than a human being, and I had an expeirence that we as a country are still trying to get out of now.”

Except the audio for “this place is so beautiful” was entirely different than the rest of the sentence. This was a frankenbite, a piece of dialogue taken from another place and time and inserted to make an entirely new sentence. Gerald’s “this place is so beautiful” may have been from another time when he was discussing the plantation, but it may have also been Gerald talking about the Top Chef pantry or the house where the chefs stay.

In other words, the editing faked a sentence to make Gerald’s sentiment more positive and upbeat: beauty and horror instead of just horror.

Problem #3: Padma’s introduction

Once the chefs had all arrived, Padma introduced the challenge like this:

“Welcome to the historic Boone Hall Plantation. Since the 1950s, this land has been open to visitors to educate the public and honor those who worked and toiled here, so that we may never forget our past.”

This is a nice sentiment with a regrettable phrase at its center: “worked and toiled.” At the very least, that needed a qualifier, such as worked and toiled because they had no choice and were considered property. 

Problem #4: Padma’s questions

Padma asked Gerald, the first-time contestant, “What’s going through your mind right now?”

It was not clear if this question referred to the fact that Gerald was about to compete to stay in the competition, or to the fact that the competition was occurring in a place with a painful history that was very personal to Gerald.

Gerald answered as if it were the latter: “There’s some post-slavery blood coursing through my veins so it feels a little surreal, but also very comfortable for some reason,” he said.

Padma then asked John, “How are you faring?”

That wouldn’t have been an awkward question if it was only about the impending competition. But because Gerald answered a similar question by referring to the place’s history, and Padma’s question immediately followed that, it came across like this:

  1. Descendent of slaves describes what it’s like to be visiting a plantation.
  2. Host turns to white man and asks him how he’s feeling.

John answered similarly to Gerald, and made an effort to not try to claim the same connection to the gravity of their environment. “You know, I have a little bit of Gerald’s sentiment,” he said. “I’m not in the same place, but my mother was a civil rights activist in the 60s, and this is just a great reminder of what should never happen again.”

Problem #5: The pivot to the challenge

But the part that felt the grossest was the way the episode was like, Slavery? Check! Now on to the competition.

That started with Gail Simmons, who offered this as a transition:

“There’s certainly a lot of history here, but we’re here because it’s home to one of the world’s largest oyster festival.”

I doubt this was the intention, but the sentence itself erases the significance of the visit. We didn’t pick this because it offers our audience a chance to learn something about American history, but because this place that used to have slaves now has oysters!

And then the episode transitioned to the challenge with its usual graphics package. It felt crass and thoughtless.

All of this illustrates how important it is for unscripted productions to be thoughtful and careful about their use of historic locations, particularly ones where people suffered. Just using a historic location as a backdrop for triviality is a bad idea. The Amazing Race 2’s use of Nelson Mandela’s cell to hold a clue box—a clue box!—stands out as one such example. These are places for reflection and learning, but they weren’t treated that way.

Top Chef Charleston may have had good intentions, but it undercut those with its presentation and language.

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About the author

  • 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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