Bravo is not a channel that’s suppose to get the food thing right, is it?  I mean, we have TWO, count them, TWO channels here in SoCal that offers up what culinary geeks want:  The Food Network and The Cooking Channel.  And yet, it’s Bravo that seems to come out and kick the other two channels little behind when it comes to doing a cooking competition right.  Top Chef or The Next Iron Chef America?  I will take Top Chef every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  I don’t need a martial arts actor pretending to be a chairman of a fictitious company that serves a secret ingredient that only “Iron Chefs” and their worthy opponents can conjure up in 1 hour.  We ALL know that the chefs already know at least 3 of the possible secret ingredients in which they can prepare a full 5 course meal from.  The only “secret” is that how Kevin Brauch got a gig running around with a clip board like he’s a journalist.  Top Chef, on the other hand, does not treat the competition like a ring fight.  There’s no commentator like Alton Brown spouting off culinary drivel [I mean, does he REALLY research those moronic quotes at the end of each episode?].  They don’t have a fictitious “chairman” pretending to be the one in charge [which he is not] while also sporting a very weak and fake Asian accent.  Don’t get me started on the racial stereotypes we still have in this country.  Top Chef, while probably still guilty at getting highly intense personalities to clash for good TV, treats its chef like this really IS a competition.  Putting each chef through the ringer is an understatement.  Quick fires and elimination challenges while being judged by Tom, Padma, Gail, and last year, uber chef Eric Ripert certainly has more culinary weight than Food Network’s Jeffery [grumpy old man], Donatella [is she even a chef?], and a celebrity who just likes to eat.

And then there is this holiday season’s Top Chef All Stars.  This show is making the Next Iron Chef America look like a high school production of The Phantom of the Opera.  With no chandelier.  No fog machine.  Hell, it doesn’t even have a mask for the Phantom.  The Top Chef All Stars is anything but gimmicky.  Take the first episode, “History Does Not Repeat Itself”, in which all the chefs have to recreate a better version of the dish that sent them home from their respective seasons.  Poor Fabio Viviani, whom Anthony Bourdain roundly mocked and criticized, stood helplessly in the kitchen watching the judges in the dining room routinely nit-pick everyone’s dish.  And unlike anything you will see on the lesser food channel, Fabio says to Elia, “I will give him [Bourdain] my thoughts at judges’ table.”  Now, you’re thinking, “Is he crazy?  Does he WANT to be eliminated?  Is he out of his gourd?”  And then you see it.  Anthony Bourdain comes out punching, “WHAT were you THINKING????  That dish was horrible.”  Fabio’s response was dignified, respectful, and yet, very forthright.  “Sir, you can criticize my cooking constructively all you want, but you did not have to make fun of me and my food.”  Bourdain’s reaction was one where he knew, just KNEW, he went overboard.  In the Bravo website, Bourdain even wrote:

Did it taste that bad? Did it — and by extension — Fabio, deserve the kind of scorn I heaped on him?

I don’t know. Clearly, I hurt his feelings. And seeing that, I feel bad. Really. To the extent that you can like anyone you know only from TV, I like Fabio. And I liked how he stood up for himself and gave some back at Judges’ Table. If I were an employer looking to hire a chef from the among the All Stars, I’d think very seriously about Fabio. He’s smart, likable, steady, level-headed in a crisis, and hence not easily flustered — and I’m guessing he’s a much better chef than evidenced on this first day, where he was challenged to “fix” a dish he’s surely had plenty of time to think about.

Fabio standing up for himself in front of judges’ table like a man whose kid just got spanked.  And he did NOT get sent packing.  You will NEVER, see that on Iron Chef America.  You will NEVER see Bobby Flay give Jeffery Steingarten the smack down because Jeffery has NO idea what the freak he’s talking about.  What you WILL see is Bobby Flay chuckle sheepishly and wait for the “chairman” to say, “Next course!”  The difference, you see, is that Top Chef, and by extension Bravo, WANTS this to be good competition.  Sure, there is editing and ways producers probably instigate bad blood between the chefs, but time and time again, you hear guest judges say, “we spent HOURS, literally, talking over each dish until we came to a consensus on who goes home.”  I am sure The Food Network just wants to get 3 Iron Chef shows filmed in one day so they can make more advertising dollars.  It really is a shame that The Food Network should be the one airing Top Chef, not Bravo.  But “bravo” to Tom Colicchio, one of the producers of the show for showing he has nads.  He’s not going to dumb down the show for a few laughs and gimmicks [i.e. watching Donatella Arpaia and Andrew Knowlton go at it is nauseating].  This is a cooking competition and you can feel it in your gut, literally.  When Elia gets sent packing at the end of the first show, you really felt for her.  Deep down, I know viewers wanted Stephen to go home for that “pu-pu platter from Hell”, as Bourdain writes.  But each of these 12 episodes will give the viewers an emotional roller coaster ride.  And that’s why Bravo has done it right and why The Food Network is now nothing more than another cheese-y and gimmicky station probably being mocked by real chefs.  Sad, oh so sad.