Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.
In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.
Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.
On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.
Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.
These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.
During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.
This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.
If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.
Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.
Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.
As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.
Kathy M. Newman