Sunday, December 02, 2012

Life after "Life After Top Chef"


Yes, this is a dumb clip, but at least you get to see the four chefs together, and you also get a swell commercial! As for the official "content," well, when I looked at the Life After Top Chef clips offered by Bravo, this was the one I noticed that featured all four chefs -- Fabio, Jen, Spike, and Richard -- which didn't have them answering some pointless and offensive as well as stupid question about sex.

by Ken

I see that the Bravo webpage for Life After Top Chef is already referring to the season we just witnessed as "Season 1." I guess we've seen the final episode of the season, since the end of this past week's episode featured those on-screen updates for our four chefs. I also see that the webpage contains potentially interesting stuff like cast blogs, and one of these days I definitely plan to read them. For now, though, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed "Season 1."

In large part, of course, this had to do with the selection of the four Top Chef alumni chosen -- all former contestants I was not only happy but almost eager to see in more recent action than their most recent Top Chef season, which for all four was the Season 8 Top Chef All-Stars shown in 2010-11. In fact, for me -- and I suspect for many other compulsive Top Chef watchers -- it would be hard to imagine anyone I would rather have seen. They have rather different relationships to the food they cook but those relationships are all passionate, and they're all enormously engaging, again in intriguingly different ways. What's more, they had already developed relationships with each other which were intensified in the course of the filming of Life After.

Of course what we saw was a highly edited-for-TV product, so we can't claim to have met the "real" Richard Blais (runner-up from Season 4, and winner of All-Stars), Spike Mendelsohn (also from Season 4), Fabio Viviani (the all-but-universal "Fan Favorite" from Season 5), or Jen Carroll (from the amazing Season 6, which was dominated by the Voltaggio brothers, Michael and Bryan, and also introduced us to Mike Isabella, the eventual All-Stars runner-up). Still, we got to see a whole lot more of all of them, in a fascinatingly diverse range of situations, personal as well as public.

Given the relentless pressures of the Top Chef format, it's hardly unprecedented for even the most relentless competitors to suffer surprising lapses. But Fabio, who produced so much food that appeared to be sensational, and clearly the work of an outstanding cook, had lapses that suggested a something less than consuming passion for consistency. And while I've forgotten vast quantities of detail about the Top Chef seasons, but I have pretty fresh recall of Fabio being eliminated for being unable to produce a decent burger. The meatball- or meatloaf-like thing he produced not only wasn't a burger but apparently, according to the judges, just wasn't very good. How uncool was that?

But what was never in question was Fabio's extraordinary "people skills." There's nothing accidental or coincidental about his just about literally irresistible charm. Now having seen so many more examples of it, and having seen from the inside how he marshalls it as needed for professional situations that demand it, we've also seen that those skills are not only massive but legit. Sure, he's totally aware of his ability to connect with people and depends heavily on them, but there's no getting around, and no faking, the intense curiosity about and empathy with people which underlie those skills. Those amazing people skills are clearly invaluable to the already formidable L.A.-based food empire he has built, but Life After also made clear how hard he works while harnessing them. None of what he has built has come to him by chance.

The same is true, albeit in a very different style, of Spike. In truth, I wasn't crazy about him in his Top Chef seasons. He's clearly a less good cook than many of the contestants who've passed through the show, and he seemed to enjoy himself a lot more than I was comfortable with. Of course I'm jealous, but it didn't make me like the fellow any more. All of this was still in evidence in Life After, but so -- viewed closer up -- was what appeared to be a genuinely good nature and remarkable generosity. It was most evident in the considerable amount of support he lent to Jen in her period of troubles (being still unable to get the restaurant she has imagined, Concrete Blonde, off the ground, with the special trauma of the rupture with the investors she thought would enable her to make it happen. But it wasn't just Jen; Spike seemed prepared to drop everything for any friend in need -- or even friends not in need. His enormous enjoyment of life seems never to come at anyone else's expense but to include as many of his friends as possible.

Jen and Richard seem pretty clearly to represent the more purely food-obsessed focus of an aspiring chef. I found both fascinating contestants. Richard seemed pretty obviously, in both his Top Chef seasons, a genuinely outstanding cook. You get the impression that if he was cooking for you, you would come away not only highly satisfyingly but also fascinatingly well-fed. And by the All-Stars season he seemed to have grown behind his fascination with purely technical wizardry to a more general concern for producing yummy food -- the sort of thing I associate in its purest form with Season 5 runner-up Carla Hall. Richard's deep anxieties, about his own performance, about his being sufficiently there for his wife and two young children, about pretty much everything in life, make him a great TV character, and also one it's incredibly easy to like and want to watch. Of course he should have won All-Stars, and I was really happy when he did, especially after what he himself seemed to regard as a choke in the finale of his original season.

There was all kinds of drama in Richard's main plot line for Life After: opening the Spence, his second attempt at a "fine dining" restaurant in his hometown of Atlanta. Totally understandably, the commercial failure of his first attempt seems always present. At the same time, it would have been impossible not to be engrossed by the domestic drama -- his constant awareness of the difficulty of "being there" as much as he should be for his wife Yazmin and their wildly adorable daughter Riley and new addition, Embry.

One of the charming plot lines of the final episode was the life-or-death urgency of his quest to have First Lady Michelle Obama sign a first-birthday card for Embry during the Quickfire-like event in Dallas, orchestrated by Spike (whose Washington eatery includes the First Lady as one of its customers), at which all four Life After chefs participated along with Season 9 winner Paul Qui and contestant Grayson Schmitz. Of course when he finally had a chance to ask her, she was thrilled to do it. But for Richard everything is a challenge -- including that Dallas event, in which the six chefs were asked to showcase healthy meals illustrative of the First Lady's promotion of good nutrition. As Fabio understood going in, Richard would be the one of them who would feel the need to compete all-out in the demonstration event.

Richard with First Lady Michelle Obama and White House chef Sam Kass at the Dallas event -- did he really think the First Lady, who after all has two daughters of her own, wouldn't sign the card for his younger daughter's first birthday?

One fascination of the final countdown to the opening of Richard's restaurant was the frantic effort he had to make, in what he realized was way too little time, to train the staff that had been assembled to reliably cook his food. This is a subject that's obviously crucial for chefs who are serious about their food as well as their businesses, but we don't get to see much of it up close

In some ways Jen has been one of Top Chef's most intriguing competitors. In her original season, after appearing for a bunch of weeks as one of the field's most talented and also most focused chefs -- yes, even on the level of the Voltaggios -- she just seemed to fade, and then in All-Stars she never developed any rhythm, and performed the famous meltdown following her unexpedtedly early elimination which is probably most people's enduring image of her. I suppose it doesn't hurt that when she pulls her hair back in ponytail, which she seems to do only when she's cooking, she's smoking hot. But there doesn't seem any doubt that she's someone it would be fun to know and especially someone you'd be delighted to have cooking for you.

And Jen's family situation is irresistibly poignant, as she, her father, and her two sisters help her mother in the all too evidently grueling recovery from a major stroke. When Jen did her pop-up version of Concrete Blonde in Philadelphia (with Spike in attendance, bringing along two investors of his to introduce them to her and her cooking), how moving was it to see her whole family there in the packed house? The note at the end of last week's episode indicated that Jen hopes to open Concrete Blonde in New York in 2013, and hopes that her mother will be able to walk into the opening. It's hard to remain dry-eyed.

Spike's family was also a fascinating presence on Life After, since all of his restaurants are family businesses with his parents, Henry and Cathy, and his sister, Michelle. For that matter, it was fascinating to see the complexities of Fabio's worshipful but, well, complex relationship with his mother, who paid a dramatic visit from Italy, and also the close relationship with his close friend and professional associate Jacopo, and even the support, clearly important to his high-stress life, he gets from his "life coach."

There are lots of Top Chef alumni for Bravo to draw on for future seasons of Life After, but for uniformity as well as diversity and balance of interest, this season's foursome is going to be a tough act to follow. I've been grateful for their company these many weeks.



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