Thanks to a combination of good casting, good luck, and the fact that Top Chef casts fairly interesting people to begin with, the first two episodes of the show's current All-Star season have been exceptionally enjoyable and interesting. And last night, two stories cast light on one of the most intriguing questions that a show like this can raise: What does a person who's seen herself on television do differently the second time around?
(A discussion of last night's episode follows, so beware.)
In Top Chef's first season, Tiffani Faison finished second, after spending the season as an obviously skilled but often controversial contestant. She had trouble getting along with people, she expressed little patience with anyone who had problems with her, and in the third episode, she expressed contempt for the challenge of cooking for a group of kids, brushing off her failure to please them by declaring that they had unsophisticated palates and she wasn't going to pander to them.
In the show's sixth season, Jen Carroll -- who came in with the impressive pedigree of working at one of Eric Ripert's restaurants -- finished fourth. Another strong chef who could come off as perhaps a little brusque, she was obviously talented, but lost out in a final four round that included three other people who were also obviously talented.
So they'd both been great, and they'd both not won, and neither one of them was universally adored for having a winning personality (though Jen's personality was, it appeared, significantly less problematic than Tiffani's).
Now, they're both on the All-Star season.
From the get-go this round, Tiffani has been infinitely more pleasant, laid-back, and self-deprecating than she ever was when she was on TV in 2006. Her sour defensiveness seems to have evaporated and been replaced by a welcome sense of humor. She found herself again confronted in last night's episode by a bunch of kids -- and this time, not only did she acknowledge that her job was to find something she could make that they'd like, but she further declared that in her first season, in the food-for-kids challenge, she was "a complete a--h---." (Her word, not mine.)
Obviously, it's guesswork to attribute a changed attitude to seeing yourself on television and wanting to come off differently, but Tiffani's ability to openly regret her own earlier behavior certainly seems like a good model for contestants who do return: she admits her weaknesses, she smiles more, and -- perhaps most importantly -- she seems to have put the entire thing in perspective. That's why it's okay to cater to kids when you're literally catering to kids: if you lose Top Chef or if people decide you're not serious because you make a sugary concoction as a midnight snack, it really doesn't matter. You can go right back to doing what you do.
Jen, on the other hand, has been snippy and unpleasant on her second try, and last night, she went out on just about as unfortunate of a note as one can. On a team preparing breakfast foods using only meat and other animal products (dairy and eggs, basically), she made what she called a version of eggs and bacon that used porkbelly. Fellow contestant Casey declared in an interview that she'd tasted the porkbelly herself and found it to taste like "wet bacon." Not a compliment.
The judges didn't like it, either. Across the board, they found it bland and unappealing. But Jen was absolutely unbending, insisting that her dish was perfectly fine, and that the entire panel of judges was flatly wrong to say the eggs were underseasoned. While everyone admires a chef who doesn't cave in as soon as anyone criticizes what she does, Jen was positively twitching with anger the entire time, angry from the get-go that her team lost the challenge. When judge Tom Colicchio asked why the team chose to put everything on one plate instead of plating dishes separately, Jen snapped, "You guys are smart enough, you're the judges; why didn't you say, 'Hey, can I get a different plate for this?'"
And it was Tiffani who responded to this -- at least according to the way the show was edited -- with a simple muttered "Oh, wow."
Jen was eliminated for her lousy dish, but on her way out, she took the all-too-common reality-show route of insisting she was booted for being too "strong" -- meaning that she was too outspoken in defense of her dish, and that's the reason they got rid of her. She is not the first person to want to believe she was eliminated for excess awesomeness, but it's never a very flattering thing to do.
What Tiffani did right this time around -- mostly worry about the competition less -- seems to have gone just as wrong for Jen. As her exit interview shows, she became genuinely infuriated (there's a lot of bleeped swearing here, be aware), insisting that there was absolutely no way she should have been anywhere close to being sent home, and hinting that there are other forces at play other than the quality of the food.
No less a straight shooter than Anthony Bourdain, by the way, has insisted (in, among other places, his book Medium Raw) that in his considerable experience on the show, the Top Chef judging is completely based on the quality of the food, and not on producer interference or personality. But Jen insists it has something to do with behavior, not performance.
As entertaining and oddball of a meltdown as this was, it's kind of sad when someone who came off relatively well -- if possessed of a strong personality -- on a previous appearance hurts herself on a second. The lesson may be that if you're going to return for a second go-round with something like this, make sure you become less tense about it, not more tense. Because if you can't, it might be better to just let sleeping reputations lie. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.