I love Top Chef. I love–well, at least I have loved–The Amazing Race. Around the World in 80 Plates is, on the surface, Top Chef meets The Amazing Race. Twelve chefs start off in London, traveling every week from one international city to another to compete in cooking challenges spotlighting the local cuisine. One chef is eliminated every week, &c. It’s produced, what’s more, by Magical Elves, Top Chef’s production company. You’d have to work pretty hard to get this concept not to please me.
And yet 80 Plates managed to do just that. I finished the pilot with little desire to watch another episode. And just to make clear that my standards are not that high: I watch Top Chef: Just Desserts. But Bravo’s newest attempt at a cooking-competition franchise took some quality original ingredients and made them into a hash.
The two major problems with 80 Plates are structural, one of which could, theoretically, be more easily fixed in later episodes than others. That problem: in the pilot, there’s just not very much cooking.
Our competitors are divided into two teams; the episode is divided into two parts. The first is a challenge, for which the winning team is rewarded with a special ingredient to use in the second part, a team cook-off. (Like Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars, every week.) In London, that challenge is to race across town to three gastropubs and wolf down (or drink) a different pub classic every week.
Guess what? Turns out it’s not that dramatically compelling to watch people eat black pudding over and over! More to the point, it’s really an eating contest, but not one that draws on any skills of the chefs as chefs. Top Chef, for instance, will sometimes have a noncooking Quickfire, but it’s pretty good at making those rely on kitchen skills—butchering meat, say, or identifying ingredients—that directly reflect on the contestant’s abilities as a chef. This, instead, is like a food-gobbling challenge from Survivor or TAR, but less gross and less interesting—and it takes up much of the episode. By the time the two teams get to design and prepare competing menus, there’s very little time to see them do their work in the kitchen before one team loses the challenge.
Which brings us to the second, and probably more harmful, structural problem: unlike in Top Chef, the ejectee is chosen by team vote, not by judges. (The show has not judges but hosts, among them Iron Chef Cat Cora.) Which means that we end up with Survivor-type dynamics, with team members conniving, striking alliances and deciding who’s the greater threat, rather than the judges ousting one person for doing the worst job that week.
Now, on any Top Chef cycle, there’s a certain amount of backstabbing, ratting out and throwing competitors under the bus to save one’s self. But I think one thing that draws fans to Top Chef and its Magical Elves ilk is that the shows are designed in general to reward talent, not strategy; by putting the vote in the hands of the judges, you can hope that the best person will actually win—and that the quality of cooking will get better, not worse, as the field narrows.
I don’t know why the producers decided to Survivor-fy 80 Plates. Maybe they felt that they had to distinguish the show with something besides the international element. But I would argue that, given that we have Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef All-Stars and Just Desserts, the audience is OK with repeating that kind of judging process and rightly. This seems like variation for variation’s sake, and for the worse; it eliminates a core part of the Top Chef franchise, which is the promise that the show is essentially about talent.
The worst of it is, 80 Plates has the material for a really intriguing, distinctive cooking competition, one I was already primed to watch. The problem of pacing and a poor first challenge is one that subsequent episodes could easily fix; there might be better, more relevant tests, and a pilot episode does have to spend more time introducing the cast. The voting system, I assume, won’t be improved, if ever, until a second season. And I’m not sure I’ll ride along on the trip long enough to see that.