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?

12 comments to “What’s bugging me about Top Chef”

  1. Netti
    · October 23rd, 2009 at 9:42 am · Link

    One has to wonder if it has something to do with the timing of the Rest wars. It’s closer to the end, they are to the point where the stress level is through the roof for them. Perhaps they just fold under the pressure. It’s funny though, I see Jennifer completely different. Most of the time yes, she seems to deal well under pressure, however, she doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of faith in herself or her capabilities. IMHO.

    Having said that, I think the ABSOLUTE worst of the entire epi was Eli & Robin, I mean c’mon people, what are you 2!? I understand drama, but sheesh, Robin & Eli have issues. The brothers I get, hey, sibling rivalry and all that. 🙄

  2. Tamara Morgan
    · October 23rd, 2009 at 9:09 am · Link

    What’s interesting is that when Jennifer did lead effectively (I want to say it was the second episode or so, when she had immunity and so directed the entire kitchen to feed the military folks), she was that crazy, barking, Alpha figure.

    I wonder if it has less to do with female-male roles and more to do with the inherent dynamics of a kitchen? Never having been a chef, I can’t say for sure, but when you see crazy guys like Gordon Ramsay screaming obscenities and building a culinary empire, you have to wonder.

  3. Tessa
    · October 23rd, 2009 at 9:11 am · Link

    Good points, Tamara! Yes, Jennifer definitely did seem “take-charge” in that military challenge, but still professional.

    It’s hard to know how much of it IS just the kitchen atmosphere. I mean, it’s loud in there. A certain amount of yelling must be necessary? I’ve never worked in one either, so I can’t say.

  4. Ann Marie
    · October 23rd, 2009 at 10:11 am · Link

    It’s hard to function as a team with people you don’t know. These shows construct a false community–the members don’t have the knowledge of or experience with each other to really be able to function that way.

  5. Tessa
    · October 23rd, 2009 at 12:54 pm · Link

    @Netti: I’m sure timing does have something to do with. And Jennifer was really sick just a few weeks ago (which probably means just a few days ago, in real-time). Her health may still not be 100%.

    @Ann Marie: That’s an awesome point. You’re so right that quiet,respect-based leadership works much better when all the parties know one another well. That level of trust takes time to build, and these people have barely known each other a few weeks for the most part.

  6. Sarah Tormey
    · October 26th, 2009 at 6:39 am · Link

    I’m chiming in a bit late, but was thrilled to see your post about this episode. I am beginning to wonder if Jennifer gets in her own way. She seems to have a gloomy attitude sometimes. My personal favorite is Kevin and I was sad to seem him on the losing team (though he did offer the best food.)

    I don’t think a woman needs that Alpha attitude to win, but the women do seem to doubt themselves more than the men.

  7. Miranda Neville
    · October 26th, 2009 at 8:24 am · Link

    Hi Tessa! Good point about Jennifer still being sick. And I am so happy about this post. We discussed the Carla fiasco after last season but no one else I know watches TC.
    @Sarah. Yes, Jennifer does seem to lack confidence. But I suspect editors may be overplaying this. They are putting together a narrative over the course of the series. J’s self-doubt is either going to be vindicated (she’ll be auf’ed to borrow the PR phrase) or triumphantly proven wrong. I like Kevin too.

  8. terrio
    · October 27th, 2009 at 7:55 am · Link

    *waves hand wildly* I watch! I’ve watched every season and though I know NOTHING about food, I love this show. (I’m the same way about PR and also know NOTHING about fashion.)

    I do think it’s the timing and the pressure taking a toll on the contestants. Even Michael V messed up a dish one week, though that is very rare. I would love to see Jennifer make the finals, but I don’t think she can beat The V brothers and Kevin.

    With that final threesome, the brothers are bound to fight which will throw Kevin through for the win. That’s my early call anyway. 🙂

  9. Sarah Tormey
    · October 27th, 2009 at 8:37 am · Link

    Terrio, I think your prediction for the final is right on target! I’m routing for Kevin:)

  10. Tessa
    · October 27th, 2009 at 4:52 pm · Link

    Hey, Sarah and Miranda! Great to “see” you both! I hadn’t really considered Jennifer’s attitude as “gloomy” per se…to me, she almost seemed cocky. But she’s definitely less self-aggrandizing than a lot of male contestants would be. Say…Stefan and Fabio from last year (whom I loved!). And as Miranda, points out, editing has a lot to do with how we see them.

    What’s interesting to me is that there are a couple of rather humble guys in the top right now–Kevin and Bryan. Both seem content to let their work speak for itself. It’s pretty cool, actually, even if it doesn’t make for as outrageous TV. 🙂

    Terri, I’m the same – I know nothing about food or fashion, but TC and PR are my favorite shows! i think the creative process just fascinates me, and the passion these people put into their work.

    As for finals….gosh. Michael V seems to be on a roll lately, and Jennifer seems to be struggling…so although I’m not gunning for an all-guy final, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen. I agree that Kevin is my favorite overall. Love his even temper, his clear command of technique, his confidence in putting a simple dish on the plate, his commitment to sustainability, his use of traditional Southern ingredients (even though I personally don’t like pork! :lol:)

  11. terrio
    · October 28th, 2009 at 6:10 am · Link

    We’ll all have to compare notes after the finale. 🙂

  12. Miranda Neville
    · October 29th, 2009 at 11:03 am · Link

    Had to stop back after last night’s episode. I won’t report the results in case anyone didn’t see it yet. But Jen is definitely having late-competition problems. Does anyone else find the idea of banana polenta vile? And how about the oral sex jokes at the table. Sounded like a bunch of romance writers ….