"TOP CHEF" is the jackhammer of the food world. Even with earplugs, it is impossible to tune out.
The reality show in which cooks compete in various staged challenges is already in its third season on the Bravo channel. But even for someone who might be fortunate enough not to know a remote from a microwave, there is no escape: "Top Chef" is also covered relentlessly -- exhaustively, even -- on blogs and websites and online discussion boards.
Stage-managed competitive cooking shows are nothing new. The world has survived "Iron Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" relatively quietly, after all, and now the Food Network is banging the stockpots loudly trying to get anyone to notice that its "Next Food Network Star" is going into a fourth season.
But "Top Chef," a spinoff of a fashion bake-off called "Project Runway," is the "Dallas" of its day, continuously riding a whole new wave that is washing up all over television and the Internet and even into the most respectable of outlets, print media.
Now its cooking-as-pro-wrestling-match tentacles are reaching into advertising, as sponsors milk their connections to the programming. All the world's a competitive soundstage.
A new campaign for Glad's microwave steaming bags features a contest to elect a sort of top chef to represent the brand. Web visitors are invited to vote on which of five relatively famous cooks -- Govind Armstrong, Sam Talbot, Dave Lieberman, Aaron Sanchez or G. Garvin -- best exemplifies the company's "steamiest chef."
The poor guys (no girls, of course -- just think who buys the plastic wrap in a given house) have to wink and nod and try to look steamy to the point of sexy in one dimension. If you roll your cursor over their bobbing heads at glad.eprize.net/steamiestchef, though, they almost light on fire in their "choose me" desperation.
In a distantly "Top Chef"-related competition, the Bertolli olive oil and processed food company is running an online contest to choose a co-host for Rocco DiSpirito for its new online programming. Entrants have to create a video demonstrating their credentials and expertise with "Mediterranean style," and visitors to www.whatsyourmedstyle.com will vote.
DiSpirito, of course, is best known as the protagonist in another reality show, "The Restaurant." Both he and his created-for-television restaurant in New York City failed magnificently, and quickly. But "Top Chef" keeps on churning.
Raising the stakes
Competitive cooking has always been as American as pickle- and pie-judging at state fairs, but with television, the stakes have been raised to Nielsen level. Anyone who has seen the judging of a chili or barbecue cook-off knows the old way is about as exciting as watching Pillsbury dough bake.
"Iron Chef," the Japanese import, was the first program to turn competitive cooking into something much more dramatic, but "Top Chef" has moved the goal posts closer to "Survivor," if not "The Simple Life."
Competitive cooking is the new football, crossed with the lottery: skill merged with a game of chance for show.
"Top Chef" pits roughly a dozen young, uniformly telegenic cooks in two cook-offs in each episode. (You could think of it as "Iron Chef" after a population explosion, and sans the famous faces of Masaharu Morimoto or Bobby Flay.)
In the first, called "Quickfire," they each have to come up with a dish or two in very short time with no notice of what ingredients they will be wrangling (or mangling).
In the second, "Elimination," they cook a dish or two to be judged by a team of judges, both regulars and guests. The lousiest dish loses, and that cook -- to use the cliché -- packs up his knives and goes home.
Last one standing at the end of the season wins $100,000 and other prizes with a sponsor's name attached.
Devotees are clearly fascinated, but much of the action looks like the "Keystone Cooks," with more of them running around like decapitated chickens than actually using their heads.
What works in television programming is even easier to exploit in advertising. Once upon a time, promos for Glad and Bertolli would have flitted across a TV screen and been forgotten. In the age of online viewership even on tiny cellphones, a programming concept can go commercial very easily. Like the show? Stay tuned to vote on the commercial.
Technology has been a huge help. The amateur videos submitted to the Bertolli/Rocco competition are all testaments to technology at the most rudimentary level: Anyone with a camera and a computer can produce 30 seconds of video that might make Julia Child's best efforts look primitive.
And the power of tube food is only expanding. In one recent episode, "Snacks on a Plane," the aspiring tops raced around making surprise breakfasts to be judged by robotic hostess Padma Lakshmi, followed by a surprise airline meal to be judged by flight attendants and the usual suspects, including Keyser Söze himself, Anthony Bourdain.