Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On French Top Chef

The French showed great resistance to cooking reality TV. Cooking was far too noble to be made into a game! Past efforts were a flop, notably Ready, Steady, Cook, a lively and fun BBC show made so sober and serious it was soon cancelled. Since then, M6 has had great success with Un dîner presque parfait (Come Dine With Me), encouraging them to try Top Chef (TC). Rival network TF1 had success with Masterchef, despite those who poopooed the idea that amateurs could do real cuisine.

(Teaser for TC 2011)

The first season of TC was disturbing: the format was significantly different from US TC. But once I got used to it, I liked it well enough. This season is much better, although perhaps even farther from the US TC.

A first difference is the length of each episode. French TV does not use 30- or 60-minute time slots. There is usually an early prime-time program and a late prime-time program. For many years, most programming on TV was just films, and most production of fiction retains the made-for-TV movie format, even when it uses a recurring character. When a US series is programmed, which is very common now on the private networks like TF1 or M6, they will broadcast three hour-long episodes back to back to make up the evening's program.

And thus, French TC is a program that lasts nearly three hours, including commercial breaks. That's about 2.5 hours of showtime, on a weekly basis! Clearly, the 45-minute run time of US TC won't work. So how do they get so much show for each episode? One way they don't do it is with out-of-kitchen scenes. Unlike US TC, we don't see the "private" life of the cheftestants, we don't know where they live during the show, we don't see them interact "off duty". This is not because French TV doesn't like this kind of stuff: they adore it, and are as trashy as anything you'll see. But I'm guessing they don't want to sully the notion of cuisine with sex or other unseemly aspects of life (you will not be seeing a Tiffani rubbing her bra on anybody's head on French TC). In the first season, they did imply that there was a romance going on between two cheftestants, but this year, nothing of the sort.

Instead, they take their time with each challenge, and have added new segments to the show. They begin with the Quickfire (last season called l'épreuve sur le gril, this year l'épreuve coup de feu), which takes about 30 minutes. There are no big cash prizes on French TC, largely because there is no product placement allowed at all in France. As in US TC, winners of the Quickfire get immunity, and may get another prize, such as an appearnce on the network, a recipe in a magazine, etc. There are usually no guest judges for the Quickfire.

The main section of the show are the "épreuves des chefs". The result of the "chefs' challenges" is to designate the losers who will go on to the final épreuve de la dernière chance, or "last chance challenge", not to directly eliminate anyone. Until the final episodes, there were two chefs' challenges in each episode. These were usually team challenges, and the chefs (the producers, in fact), chose which cheftestants would do which challenge, who would be assigned which ingredient, and usually which cheftestants would be in each team within a challenge (while knives are drawn in French TC, they are not used to make up teams or to provide any random element: there is little random choice in French TC).

Typically, one group's challenge will take place in the TC kitchen, while the other group will be "in the field" (sometimes literally, as when a challenge involved cooking pasta for a rugby team, on the rugby field). Most of the time the challenges are similar to those found in US TC (a new take on a traditional dish, etc.). Unlike US TC, most of the time the raw ingredients are those of the TC pantry, with no supermarket visits (because no product placement to justify it). We watch first one challenge, then the second challenge. The losers from each challenge go to the last chance challenge. Losers are designated by a dual vote: the chef judges and the diners. The conceit is that two chef judges judge each challenge, which was devised by one of them (in fact, of course, by the producers). The diners for the rugby challenge would of course be the members of the rugby team.

In order to avoid the last chance challenge, a chef (or team, usually) needs to have had success with both the chef judges and the diners. They pull knives from the block: if the knife is clean, they have succeeded with that jury. If the blade is orange (the TC color, or perhaps because red would be too gross), they have failed. So if either of the two knives (judges and diners) is orange, the team has failed. This can mean that everyone fails, and it's happened that after the two chefs' challenges, which take up the bulk of the show, almost everyone winds up in the last chance challenge.

The last chance challenge always takes place in the kitchen, and is usually something quite simple (make a cold first course, cook fish, make an egg dish). The dishes are tasted blind by the chef judges, who comment on them, and may then ask the cheftestants for additional information. The judges deliberate, and the cheftestants appear at judges' table where the eliminee is announced.

About the judges: There are five of them. One, Cyril Lignac is a young chef, made famous by his many appearances on M6. He has the sneer and sniff role, although he is more hands on and helpful than Tom C. He usually judges as well, but with the diners, where he has the deciding vote in case of ties. The "real" judges are four top chefs, always the same throughout the show. They are real top chefs, and they are treated with great deference by the cheftestants. The conceit is that they are the ones devising the challenges. In the chefs' challenges, they pair up, with two judges working on each challenge. They will provide much more hands on help and advice to the cheftestants. The tone is more that these are young chefs proving themselves, and learning, in a kitchen of a great chef. At the beginning of each challenge, we see a taped segment where the chef giving the challenge shows the dish he made himself.

There are two rather bland hosts, who have nothing to do with the judging.

There were 12 cheftestants in the first season, and 14 this year. This year, three cheftestants were eliminated in the first episode, and one in each of the following episodes until the finale. The last two episodes before the finale did not work by elimination, but on the basis of a qualification, with a series of challenges, the winner of which was qualified for the next week's competition.

The finale was semi-live, with challenges beginning off camera during the day, and the final meal prepared and eaten by over 100 diners (viewers who had won a drawing to participate) at a 5-star hotel in Versailles. In a first challenge, one cheftestant was eliminated, leaving the final decision between two cheftestants. There were three juries for the final meal: the 100 diners, the 12 eliminated cheftestants, and the chef judges. While cheftestant Fanny won the vote of the chef judges, her rival Stephanie won the vote of the other two juries, making her this year's Top Chef.

About the cheftestants: this season seems to have drawn a higher caliber of cheftestant. As in US TC, the producers like to have a mix of different kinds of cheftestants with different types and levels of experience. Last year was really absurd, with one of cheftestants being a mere commis and another an apprentice (both were obviously elimination fodder, and packed up their knives in the first episode). There was no such nonsense this year, and even the younger less-experienced chefs were quite good (Alexis, Tiffany...). There were many more talented women, with the finalists being two women (who received a great deal of abuse on internet... they were tough women, assertive and kind of bitchy, which is what it takes to win the show, and to succeed in the business). There were some attractive male cheftestants, including pretty-pretty Alexis (he doesn't photograph well, alas) and the studly but pouty Ronan.

Season 1 cheftestants HERE
Seaon 2 cheftestants HERE

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