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How Top Chef Charleston recovered from its episode-one screw-up

How Top Chef Charleston recovered from its episode-one screw-up
Sheldon Simeon, Brooke Williamson, and Shirley Chung on Top Chef 14's penultimate episode. (Photo by Paul Cheney/Bravo)

I cannot quite imagine a better final three for this all-star-ish season of Top Chef than the three who competed during last week’s episode. They are just the best: great cooks and competitors who share respect for each other and also a burning desire to win. This time.

Shirley, Brooke, and Sheldon were all so close to the title during their first seasons, which is part of what makes Sheldon’s loss last episode so tragic. To lose at the exact same stage of the competition again! And for such a simple error as cooking fish on a surface that wasn’t hot enough! Alas. But the great part is that they’d all be wonderful winners, and as Sheldon said repeatedly, they’re cooking against the best.

It’s a nice second chance for all three.

This season was a second chance for only half its cast, though. Remember the new chefs? The ones who were pretty much decimated? Their experience in the kitchen wasn’t enough to compare to their opponents’ experience in Top Chef’s soundstage kitchen. Never underestimate the power of knowing how things work, what they feel like, what to expect. In retrospect, it was a mistake to cast this competition that way.

Not all of the new chefs were total wrecks, of course—Sylva made the final five, and should have been in the final four—and some of the returning chefs were disasters.

In fourth place was John, who kept sliding through, barely, kept insisting he was a new person while showing us the opposite, mostly. His season-long conflict with Katsuji was a highlight and a lowlight, culminating in that delicious decision to pair them together as sous chef and angry chef. I’d watch a show where they cooked together while hurling insults and occasionally kitchen appliances.

Top Chef finally did history right

A cast of mostly unprepared chefs versus at-ease returnees made for an awkward and weak beginning, but that wasn’t season 14’s only problem.

It began by completely botching a visit to a plantation in episode one, using it as a backdrop after paying lip service to the pain and suffering that had been endured. But Top Chef Charleston didn’t repeat that mistake. Five episodes later, it offered a wonderful episode set at a different plantation. It was what they should have done in episode one—or really, episode one should not have been done at all. (To host a sudden death elimination there was just a bad choice in a series of bad choices.)

In episode six, the elimination challenge was held at a plantation, and it was the opposite of that first episode. The chefs cooked at Middleton Place, named after the Middleton family, who owned more than 2,800 slaves over a 130 year period. But Middleton Place wasn’t backdrop. While the show did not give as much attention to the place’s pre-Civil War history as I would have liked, especially after how dismissive it was in episode one, it did connect to that past.

The chef’s task was to pay homage to Edna Lewis, a chef whose influence on Southern cooking is still felt, even though her name isn’t well-known outside of chef circles—or even to some chefs. Born in 1916, she was the descendant of slaves who rose to prominence thanks to her cooking and cookbooks. During part of her career, she was the resident chef at Middleton Place, and cooked in the same kitchen the contestants used. (If you want to know more about her, read this in-depth profile: Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking.)

The guests for the meal the chefs served were southern chefs who were influenced by Edna, including Art Smith, Toni Tipton Martin, and Alexander Smalls.

Not all of the chefs knew who Edna was, and that included Sylva, who illustrated the long and painful history of black people and cooking—which originated, of course, in slavery—by talking about how it caused a rift between him and his father. “Back in high school, I won a scholarship to go to CIA, but my father, he literally said, ‘No son of mine will be a domestic,” Sylva said in an interview.

Sylva told his fellow chefs, “It’s truly inspiring just because there’s very little black chefs we look up to, but the older generation—you know, like, people that’s my father’s age—we as black people were like domestics and servers and the help.”

In an interview, Sylva said, “Just growing up in New York, we’re surrounded by great cuisine and great restaurants. But inside those high-end cuisines there’s very little black chefs, let alone executive chefs. Not only was Edna a black chef, she was a black woman chef way back when, and she became an owner of a restaurant. Just learning about that drive and that passion—she didn’t stop, so why should I?”

Top Chef also inspired its viewers to learn more about Edna and cook like her—or at least, to buy her cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. The Friday after the show aired, that book “shot up to number 5 on the Amazon cookbook bestseller list, and number 11 on its overall bestseller list,” The Washington Post reported.

It’s still #1 in Amazon’s Southern cooking category. That’s meaningful impact—and I don’t mean the book sales alone. Top Chef thoughtfully presented information about a culinary icon, touched on American history, and connected it to a contestant’s life experiences in the midst of an ultimately trivial cooking competition, and inspired its viewers along the way. Bravo.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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.

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