What’s bugging me about Top Chef
If you don’t watch the Bravo TV show Top Chef, this post won’t have much interest for you, sorry! But TC is one of…three?…TV shows I actually make a point to watch, and something’s been bugging me ever since this week’s “Restaurant Wars” episode. (Warning: Spoilers ahead, if you DVR’d it and haven’t watched yet.)
“Restaurant Wars” happens every season once the “cheftestants” are down to eight. They divide into teams of four, and each team opens a restaurant for one night. It’s usually an episode filled with drama and strife between competitors and lots of frantic rushing around. This year’s Restaurant Wars was no exception. The two team leaders were both chefs with lots of obvious talent and experience, and they’re two of my favorites on the show. Michael V. has this sort of hotheaded, foul-mouthed renegade image going on. To me, he has seemed awesomely talented, but somewhat inconsistent. The other team captain, Jennifer, I’ve come to associate with precision, consistent quality, coolness under pressure. In an earlier episode, she lead the entire team of contestants and really impressed me with her toughness.
During Restaurant Wars, however, Jennifer imploded. Now, there could be lots of reasons for it. But I think she had the better team of the two, and they just fell apart at every level. Because each of them has mad skillz, they kind of decided to divide and conquer–each person working to his or her own strengths. Jennifer didn’t get in anyone’s face. She just trusted her teammates to deliver the stunning, high-quality dishes they’ve produced in the past, and in the end they all failed (including Jennifer herself) to do so. During the critique portion of the show, host Tom Colicchio said that they needed someone to step up and lead, and no one did.
On the other hand, Michael V’s kitchen was a storm of drama, accusation, micromanaging and profanity. He had two people on his team who clash loudly and often, and a wider range of skills and experience to work with. He basically took control with an iron fist and a foul mouth, and in the end, all the food was amazing–his, most of all. The judges declared Mike V.’s restaurant to be the best Restaurant Wars effort on Top Chef, ever. Quite an accomplishment.
So what’s bugging me here is this. It reminded me of last season, when fan fave Carla imploded in the season finale after coming on strong and improving with each challenge. Once again, her implosion seemed to have a lot to do with leadership — she listened to her sous chef’s suggestions too much, and trusted her to do things that didn’t happen. Her consensus-building style ultimately worked to her detriment.
I know every man and every woman is an individual with his or her own unique brand of leadership or lack thereof. Generalizations are just that: generalizations. But what bugs me about this week’s Top Chef is that once again, it seemed like a female chef leading with what I consider a more feminine leadership style–trusting the talent of teammates, building consensus, leading by example–lost BIG time to a competitor running in full-tilt Alpha Male mode, complete with bullying and cursing. Even Michael V’s own brother said he was annoyed that Mike’s bad behavior was rewarded. But it was rewarded…because it worked.
Clearly there were other factors involved in how the episode went down, and I know editing plays a big role in how the events appear on TV. But after the Carla disappointment and Jennifer’s meltdown, I’m asking myself if a woman can succeed in a team challenge on that show (or in a real kitchen) without basically adopting an aggressive, dominant male personality. I find myself wondering, do the team members respond better to the Alpha male leadership because it’s truly more effective, or simply because it’s what they know and are used to?
I will admit, I never watched Top Chef very consistently until last season, so maybe I missed examples of women leading well and winning. Please bring them up if you have them. Other thoughts?