A Quantum of Cumin

In France, a cooking show a la americaine has invaded the airwaves. Rue 89‘s cooking aficionado Renee Greusard grits her teeth and watches the fresh vegetable jellos come out of the oven.

I love cooking. At the moment, instead of typing this article, I would much rather be at home baking some multicolored choux a la creme. In spite of my love of the kitchen, I have always avoided watching cooking shows. For me, cooking is about socializing and enjoying myself, not about watching people freaking out and battling one another in a kitchen. I am of course referring to Top Chef.

For those who do not know the show (and where the hell have you been living lately, on Mars?), Top Chef is a sort of Star Academy of the kitchen. Cooks compete in a series of culinary tests, and are graded on each effort by five-star chefs. At the end of the contest, only one remains, the ‘Top Chef,’ who collects a 100,000 Euro prize.

But even if you never watch the show, you still feel its ripple-effects. For example, there are your friends who now put a piece of food in their mouth and exclaim, ‘visually pleasing, and a gustatory delight!’

How many people watch Top Chef? Last Monday, there were 3.2 million viewers. 400,000 fewer than at the beginning of the previous season, but still a 14.8 percent audience share for Channel M6.

Out of the blue, I have people whose culinary talents were always limited to steak, pasta and ketchup asking me questions like: “What did you use for this dish, agar-agar or gelatin?”

So there I was last Monday, sitting down to watch the first episode of season five. A special episode as it turned out: ten former contestants from previous seasons, of whom only three will be permitted to participate in the new season’s contest.

All of them pledge their undying love for the show:

“Top Chef is a thrill ride you will experience nowhere else, except maybe by jumping out of a plane without a parachute,” says one.

Now it is the turn of an irritating mini-brunette. In a shrill voice, she announces that she will be pitiless with the other contestants, that she will smash everything. This, on top of the action-movie soundtrack, has all started to get rather noisy. The mini-person has gotten on the show with her boyfriend, who she calls “my love,” “sweetheart” and “my darling.”

I have begun to have serious regrets about proposing this article at the editorial conference.

The first challenge is announced: the contestants are to make… a vegetable jello. Oh, joy.

The contestants are off and literally running… to choose their vegetables. The entire challenge is nerve-wracking. They chop the vegetables at high speed, cursing any little mistake.

It is as if James Bond found himself at the climax of a film, needing to prepare the best jello in the world to save his own life.

But for the contestants, there is nothing comical about the situation.

“We are not here for some children’s tea party!”

“Julien not only ‘is back'[in English],” says one, and yes he is referring to himself in the third person, “but he ‘is back on the ring!’ [in English].”

“We are playing for our lives here!”

The first contestant gets through to the next round. He has jelloed vegetables of different colors, cut them into triangles, and arranged the result in a circle. It is in fact beautiful.

“Beautiful” is what the show is really about. Those whose plates are deemed messy might as well just pack up and leave. This conscious emphasis on the part of the show is something I immediately dislike, but this clearly is not the case for the show’s many viewers. One regular, Heloise, tells me she has been following the show since the first season in 2010.

“It’s like when you walk past the window of a beautiful bakery,” she says. “You stop just to stare at all the beautiful pastries.”

Another, Emilie, 27, has also been a regular viewer since the beginning. She acknowledges however that she is no chef herself. “I don’t cook,” she says. “My talents are basically limited to making a mixed salad and various pastas. But thanks to Top Chef I now know words like agar-agar, kitchen appliances…”

Emilie watches Top Chef because, she says, eating is her “third favorite thing in the world, after sex and napping after sex.” Also, because watching the show is like “free hypnosis.”

“For ten minutes,” she says of watching it, “you are completely in this groove that you just cannot escape from. It becomes the most important thing in the world. Even movies cannot get you this hyper-focused.”

Eve-Anaelle Blandin wrote a 2012 sociology thesis on the topic of “Present-Day Culinary TV Shows.” Her dozens of interviews tried to understand what makes people watch Top Chef. It is a very mixed audience, she wrote: “Those who have no [cooking]talent. Those who do. Those who simply like to eat. Those who are attracted to the hipness of the meals.” What unites all of these people, she says, is a single desire:

“They want to see exceptional meals. The ‘pro’ style of the show appeals to them too. The fact that the people being filmed are actual chefs is part of the fun for them. The fact that there is a gap between what they can do and what the contestants can do is appealing, because what they want is the dream.”

The beautiful element is also a useful pretext for viewers who just want to watch something lightweight without feeling guilty about it, she says.

But the reality-show elements are also clearly part of the appeal here. Occasional fan Aurelia says it outright:

“All I care about is who is going to win. Who is going to get kicked off. Who is going to be weeping when they get kicked off.”

“On top of that,” she says of the current season, “there’s this couple who came on the show together, a pair of cooks. The girl is super weird. All you are hoping for is to see them break up on the show, so you can watch her weeping. She’s unbearable. The truth is that all the ‘creation process of cooking’ stuff, I couldn’t care less about!”

Back on the TV, the first contestant to be kicked off the show: she made a cucumber, green apple and spring greens jello that did not please the jury.

“It lacks pizzazz. In fact you don’t even really want to eat it,” she is told.

top-chef221Photo Top Chef. M6.

Second challenge. The contestants have to improvise a ‘chartreuse.’ The starting buzzer, and they’re off! Once again it is a mad dash to choose their vegetables. The jello James Bonds in all of their glory, and I find myself thinking back to Maite [presenter of a staid public television cooking show of the 1980s].

So what exactly happened in the years between 1992 and 2014? How did this necessary, unglamorous household task that was cooking get transformed into a fun pastime?

What do studies say about the French and food? A 2012 Harris poll showed that restaurants are the favorite destination for French people when they go out. 92 percent of French people go to a restaurant at least once a year, and 37 percent at least once a month. Cooking is the sixth favorite hobby for the French.

On my screen, one of the contenders carefully takes every single rhubarb stick so that no other contestant can use any. Great sportsmanship. Basically this episode is all-out warfare. “‘Top Chef’ is ‘Gladiator,'” one of the contestants says, as a matter of fact.

Contacted by telephone, one of the former editors of the show, Lucy, says they had tacit but clear instructions:

“Use action-movie music to up the tension. There has to be warfare in the kitchen.”

I also speak with Marc, another editor on the show. He tells me that working on the show over several seasons was very fun.

“But sometimes,” I say, “we get the impression that…”

“That the contestants are playing as if their life is riding on how they slice an onion?” he asks. “Yes, that’s true. It can become kind of a tedious aspect of working there.”

Culinary shows are a very profitable business, and everyone wants to get into the game, whether they be advertisers or manufacturers of specialty kitchenware. Between 2005 and 2010, revenues for the category jumped from 43 million Euros to 90 million.

For years, food critic Francois Simon had a famous show on television. He would critique a meal without ever showing his face, preserving his anonymity for future shows; he did it with elegance. He says that he has sometimes watched ‘Top Chef.’ The show, he says, is “spectacular and entertaining.” But it is also “terrifying.”

“For me, this show is precisely the opposite of what cooking is all about. Cooking is about simmering and shadows, about patience and shade, about forgiveness and goodness.”

Top Chef, he says, “blasts right into your face what our society has turned into today. The show is not responsible for it, it is merely a reflection. But what a violent reflection!”

Sociologist Jean Viard, co-author of France in Free Time and on Vacation, has studied hobbies extensively. On the obsession of television shows with the ‘challenge,’ he says:

“We live in a society that is obsessed with measuring performance. You must be the best in bed, the best at your job, the best in the kitchen. It is the ideology of today. This obsession has also invaded free time. Free time has now become an object of stress. But cooking should be a way of taking charge of your free time, and even of your own body.”

Food critic Francois Simon says he frequently notices former contestants on the show at the restaurants where they work, spending most of the evening in the dining room shaking customers’ hands. What, he wonders, are they actually doing? Why aren’t they in the kitchen working? The star system, he judges, is at the same time cruel (because of all the losing contestants who get left behind) and salutary.

“It has brought plenty of people into the profession, made it more prominent. Before, being in the kitchen was sort of shameful. Nowadays, a guy will flirt with a girl by telling her he’s a chef.”

On screen, the show ends in tears. Just as Aurelia had hoped. Noemi, the contestant, is separated from her ‘sweetheart.’ She passed the challenge and he did not. He put plenty of love and effort into it, but his – take a deep breath – ‘chocolate biscuit, bleeding-heart carrot, cumin, melon and tile of French toast’ – failed to win over the jury. In fact, Chef Thierry Marx ended up tossing out his spoonful in irritation.

“Way too much cumin,” he told him. “It is inedible. When you are cooking, cumin is always a risky spice. I cannot taste the chocolate. I cannot taste the carrot. There is nothing left; the cumin just overwhelms the whole palate!”

Another loser left behind. And to be completely honest, I realize I have quite enjoyed watching James Bond in the kitchen.

Renee Greusard