By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; E01
"Top Chef," like other shows, has discovered Washington as an ideal place to practice the voodoo of reality television. But even as it reaches out for the waning glint of Obamaglow that gave the city a starry allure, "Top Chef D.C." feels a day late and a dollop short.
Washington's foodie cred -- a culinary reinvention that was two decades in the making -- is a story that stands on its own, but for those viewers who don't know, the opening episode of "Top Chef D.C." (airing Wednesday night on Bravo) repeatedly reminds them that the city is a dynamic place to . . . eat, of course. But it is also an endless supplier of stirring springtime footage of busy, dressy people headed to busy, dressy dinners, all charged to a K Street expense account.
One of this season's 17 "cheftestants" is Timothy Dean, a 40-year-old native son and Howard alum who runs a steakhouse in Baltimore and, according to his bio, hopes to replicate a location here. (Another local is Tamesha Warren, a sous-chef at the Oval Room.) In the first challenge, the competitors are asked to create a dish inspired by their hometown. Dean pan-sears a "Chesapeake" rockfish with pickled leek, dill and grilled crostini.
The panel of judges -- host Padma Lakshmi, chef-restaurateur Tom Colicchio and Food & Wine magazine's Gail Simmons, joined this season by star chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, who also runs Westend Bistro in D.C. -- finds that Dean's Chesapeake pride is lacking. He has made an unfortunate decision to sear the fish skin-on.
All this undoubtedly will fascinate foodies, especially local ones, but to me, it feels as though "Top Chef" has burned off a lot of its original allure. Not only does the food always look the same, but to a person, every cheftestant is already gainfully employed. One has a Michelin star. The words "James" and "Beard" are thrown around so much, I've ceased to know what they even mean. There's no element of youthful striving (or, in fact, youth); it's become a show in which older chefs seek validation and buzzy PR.
Our city sops up the marketing opportunities, too. Although the "Top Chef D.C." opening episode makes no reference to a half-smoke, a charred and split wiener certainly must be in store -- as are appearances by a variety of predictable Beltway-ers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, CIA director Leon Panetta and White House assistant chef Sam Kass will make appearances in coming weeks, as will MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, the Washington Nationals and the always-available-for-TV Buzz Aldrin.
Populist bile and disdain for the federal government have never been thicker, yet Washington curiously remains a top tourist destination. Thus the cheftestants are immediately hustled to the top of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue for the majestic Capitol view, to drink it all in.
And chop it all up. The "quickfire" challenge involves a race to peel 10 potatoes, brunoise 10 cups of onions and quarter four chickens. "Top Chef," to both its credit and its detriment, hasn't changed a bit. I myself cooled to deadline-cooking shows a while back. Part of it has to do with the fact that what we see in couture or home-makeover results we cannot taste in TV food, and "Top Chef" rarely encourages a viewer to savor, or cook. And there's something elusively unappetizing about the egocentric kitchen milieu; from cheftestants to judges to hosts to guest-star chefs, I just don't root for any of them, nor can I seem to work up the froth required to root against them. It's never been about how well they cook; it's about how well they cook with cameras around.
Which is harder than it looks. Having prepped their hometown dishes, the chefs are hustled to some cherry-blossom-related event at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, where, Lakshmi enthuses, their food will be tasted by "300 young, successful Washingtonians."
Oh, no, not them. It's one of those events that would be covered in one of our eleventyseven Washington society magazines.
Ripert politely but unhappily tastes one cheftestant's disastrous chicken liver and port wine mousse. The cheftestant (a caterer from Brooklyn) moans, "I just served grainy, textured pâté to one of the best French chefs in the world, and there's just no way it's going to be okay." There's also no way "Top Chef" looks or tastes as interesting as it once did.
"Top Chef D.C." (one hour) airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo. Follow Joe Yonan's live tweets during the show at twitter.com/WaPoFoodLive.