The reality of reality television shows like Bravo's Top Chef is that if you're chosen as a contestant, you get to sign a big fat contract. You know, the kind of legalese that says something along the lines of the network gets to do pretty much anything it pleases. Including using you to promote affiliated products, like Top Chef's third cookbook in its New York Times bestselling series, How To Cook Like A Top Chef.
Being featured in a cookbook is great — or at least it should be. But flip to page 45, “Top Chef Personals,” and you'll see why sometimes it's not so fantastic. Yes, there really are high school yearbook-worthy mug shots of the Season 6 contestants staring back at you with words like “tender” and “optimistic” beneath their photos, with hearts and “xoxo” scrolled in hot pink ink. When a book promises to delve “deeply into the skills and techniques behind the [television] dishes… providing a road map, a distillation of tips, tricks and insider knowledge” that will make you a “better and smarter cook,” we expect a smart cookbook.
Not “fun facts” about the contestants that include such riveting statements as “born in London” (Preeti Mistry, who lives in San Francisco) and “loves Jessica Alba” (contestant Mattin Noblia). Or that Carla Hall likes to make friendship bracelets in her free time.
The silly banter might be fine in small doses if the promised “road map” of tips and tricks was useful. With huge font and many words in SCREAMING CAPS, you get the feeling you're being scolded for not paying attention in an eighth grade cooking class lecture on HERBS. A page called TOP PLATING in the ADVANCED CULINARY APPLICATIONS section begins with this tip: “garnishes should be edible.” OK, maybe sixth grade. The cartoon-like symbols on the recipes pages, such as blue ribbons with WINNER!” written inside, don't help.
And as much as we dig many of the Top Chef Masters featured on the show and in the book, including L.A.'s own Suzanne Tracht, their resume pages feel like commercial breaks. Actually, the entire book feels so much like an advertisement for Top Chef, particularly when you read the multi-page spreads on the judges (Gail Simmons' Q & A begins: “With her warm smile and wise comments”), we assumed this book was one of those “custom publishing” projects. Unfortunately, it's not. We asked.
The recipes? Unsurprisingly, they're all from past shows. Dishes like Mark Peel's duck egg pasta carbonara, Tracht's fried shallot rings with a Cheetos-Fritos-beef soup mix crumb topping and beef jerky aïoli (from a vending machine challenge), and lavender crème brûlée from Season 5. Intriguing enough, at least for those who regularly stock both fresh duck eggs in the fridge and vending machine staples in their pantry. But then there are the sidebars, like the one for the crème brûlée recipe reminding you that the “glassine exterior [of the custard] is then cracked with a spoon before devouring.” Fine. Fifth grade.