A Woman's Place
Tom Colicchio discusses the first female Top Chef.
Though the food in last night's finale was the most complex we've seen this season, the competition was completely straightforward: Richard, Lisa, and Stephanie were finally given the opportunity to express themselves fully as chefs, with the added bonus of expert, skillful support, and no limitations on ingredients or equipment. What transpired is now known by all, so there is no point in me rehashing it here. Rather, I'd like to offer my take on all three of our winners (which is how I think of them), and the one among them who became Top Chef.
Let's start with Lisa. From my limited interactions with her I can honestly say she is not nearly the ogre she was made out to be. Sure, she was grating, kvetchy, and defiant. And yes, she often skated by at the expense of an arguably more gifted chef. But the food she prepared in last night's competition proved she at least deserved to be in the finale -- it was absolutely of a league with Richard's and Stephanie's. It just wasn't the best. Having Lisa on the show this season gave rise again to those two ardent yet opposing camps in the Top Chef blogosphere, at a volume unheard since Tiffani's spin as villain-du-jour -- those who are convinced we judges manipulate the results for the ratings, and those who would have us do so for their favorite (or most hated) contestant. I'm happy to say we do neither.
Next, Richard. Of our final three, Richard had the most experience, the most imagination, and by far the most technical proficiency. He had consistently wowed us during the season, and frankly, this was his competition to lose. So what happened? In short, he choked. My sense is that Richard lacked that last little bit of grit that causes one to hang in there, no matter what. Call it the "Hillary" factor. Richard had a lot on his mind, with a new baby mere weeks from being born, but in this he is hardly unique. Most of us have to perform through all manners of harrowing ups and downs, since paying guests don't adjust their expectations to a chef's personal life. In an odd way, it may have been Richard's flashes of brilliance that did him in; he knew he was capable of greatness, and the knowledge seemed to unnerve him. The good news is I don't think Richard needed to win Top Chef to one day scale the heights of our profession. To the extent that his talents are now known widely, this show still may give him a boost, but Richard should just keep doing what he's doing: making the same inexorable climb as those who've gone before. His talents will continue to be recognized, and he will advance. We have not heard the last of Richard Blais.
Which brings us to Stephanie. Stephanie was loved by fans for her equanimity, her grace under pressure, her humility, and her great smile. Week after week Stephanie did good, solid work producing dishes we couldn't pigeonhole -- her food was always very personal and from the heart, which is why it worked. Ultimately, Stephanie won this season without batting .400 or hitting 40 home runs, but her on-base percentage was up there. And frankly, a lot of big-name careers have been built on less. The reason I feel good about Stephanie's win is that I truly believe it will alter the course of her culinary growth. I'm not talking just about the course of her career -- it goes without saying that winning Top Chef will have that effect - there will be plenty of bright lights, fans, and press all following her next step. But without this win, I think Stephanie's greatest achievement would have one day been a gem-of-a-restaurant, daily turning out good, comfortable food for a loyal, even ardent, following. Nothing wrong with that. But being named Top Chef may provide Stephanie (if she wants it) with a different sort of stage altogether; one that inspires her to experiment and skate right up to the edge of what she knows will work, thus giving her the chance to acquire that last bit of brilliance and polish a chef needs to be great. I know I'll be watching.
There's been a lot of chat about the significance of a woman winning Top Chef. But the fact that a TV win is important to a chef at all is probably worth mentioning - the idea would have been laughable only a few years ago. Back when this all began I was frequently asked why I chose to appear on a -- cringe -- reality show, when I had already achieved a certain level of recognition in my own profession, as if the decision somehow cheapened the career that came before. It was simple, really: I'm in favor of anything that exposes more people to good food and cooking -- even within the diorama of "reality" television (explanation of quotes unnecessary.) When more people start to understand the world of food -- from sourcing ingredients, to preparation, to the ins-and-outs of opening and managing a restaurant, it's good for all of us in the culinary world, as well as for the artisans, farmers, and causes we extol.
Which brings me to the gender thing -- I am glad Stephanie won because I hope it will encourage a new generation of women to follow in her footsteps and in the footsteps of other important women cooking today like Lydia Bastianich, Elena Arzak, Helene Darroze, and April Bloomfield. And even though their numbers are growing, women as a rule are still a significant minority in the uppermost reaches of the culinary world. It used to be for lack of opportunity, but I don't think that still applies today. None of the great American chefs (or at least not the ones I respect) have a glass ceiling in their restaurants. Quite the opposite: We like to hire women because they work hard without any of the competitive, macho bulls**t you often see among their male counterparts. The women I've hired help each other, don't jockey for position, and work until they drop. So if the opportunities for advancement that make up the early part of a top chef's career are there, why aren't women availing themselves of them?
Because the perception of opportunity, on the part of women themselves, hasn't kept pace. Women are reluctant to enter the culinary world because they believe (and this is not unjustified) that a cooking career is incompatible with raising children, which leaves those of us who want to hire, promote, and mentor women with a slimmer field to choose from than we'd like. And to an extent, they're right: The bottom line is our society does not yet provide women in the workplace with the type of social supports, like high-quality subsidized child care or extended parental leave, that allows them to fully go for it, and the impact this has on the scope and depth of a career is profound. Right or wrong, men plunge into their careers without much thought about how they'll navigate the work/family balance. They assume someone -- spouse, parent, paid caregiver -- will materialize to take care of it (and usually someone does.) This one assumption opens up an entire world of possibility to a young person in a way that can't be overstated. Ask yourself how many female Ferran Adrias, Thomas Kellers, or Joel Robuchons have chosen a different path -- say, catering or opening a bakeshop -- because it seems more family friendly? These may be great career choices, but they aren't the breeding grounds of culinary legend.
That's why I'm glad that Top Chef is offering young people a vision of women working in their chef's whites right alongside the men. Maybe the next generation of girls will internalize the assertion "you can be anything you want" in a whole new way, given the visual proof of seeing themselves competing -- and winning -- on screen. Able competitors like Antonia and Lisa Parks have spoken up on the show about their kids and how they missed them. The message is clear and, I think, important: I'm a devoted mother AND I'm putting my career front and center. Just as the world won't change for women until men (and companies and governments) change their thinking about how to create a truly equitable playing field, nor will the field change until women with families start to recognize that being a great mother and having great ambition for oneself are not mutually exclusive. Their families might miss them at times, but the role modeling for girls AND boys just might be worth it. But let's be clear: Stephanie didn't win this season because it was time for a woman to win. That would have been patronizing, and an insult to her and all of this season's chefs who worked so hard. Stephanie won because she deserved it. Cook often, eat well, and thanks for tuning in.
Tom Colicchio New York City