June 07, 2009

Top Chef and the Black/Non-Black Divide

By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania

http://bandung1955.wordpress.com/

I love the show Top Chef. I watch it religiously and regularly chat about it with fellow fan and friend Kevin Eddington. Although more of a foodie than me—he actually knows what sous vide means—we share concerns about the show’s racial dynamics, some of which I want to discuss here. Specifically, I want to explore how Asian Americans and African Americans are represented on Top Chef and in the process, draw from approaches emphasizing the Black/non-Black divide.

The Black/non-Black framework is proposed by George Yancey in his book Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide. According to Yancey, this framework is more helpful for analyzing racism than a white/non-white paradigm because Blacks experience a unique degree of social isolation, as evidenced by how whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans reject them as potential neighbors and marriage partners yet remain open to each other. Yancey’s conclusion bears out on the show.

Asian Americans are present as contestants, chefs, judges, and of course, hosts, and Hung Huynh won the title on season three. Yet Asian Americans face particular racial expectations: they’re encouraged to talk about their ethnicities or immigration histories, badmouthed for cooking too many Asian-influenced dishes, or expected to cook Asian food regardless of training. For example, Huynh was told that despite his skill and “technique,” his food lacked “soul.”

White head judge Tom Colicchio, reminding Huynh of Huynh’s Vietnamese background, said he didn’t “see” him in his food. Such comments reinforce the model minority myth, which celebrates “Asian” work ethic and mechanical productivity while denying us unconditional subjectivity, sociability, and authority automatically afforded whites.

Ultimately Huynh incorporated Asian-influenced flavors into his final meal in hopes of revealing his “authentic” (ethnic) self to the judges. As Huynh tried to express “soul,” his (aired) image shifted from a technically efficient, ultra-competitive, and unlikable Asian to a more humbled Asian eager to take advantage of American opportunities available to him and other immigrants, making one blogger conclude, “he seemed to…acquire social skills in front of my eyes.”

Whereas Asian Americans are racialized in ways that whites aren’t— white contestants aren’t expected to cook foods of their ethnicities so that judges “know” them—African Americans, for the most part, are physically absent from the show. Yet as Frank B. Wilderson, III explains in the anthology Biko Lives!, even when physically present, Blacks remain absent. Despite the popularity and skills of Tre Wilcox and Carla Hall, they exemplify what Wilderson describes as “the absence of a subjective presence.” Unlike Asian Americans, who could explicitly reference their ethnic backgrounds, they could not. They couldn’t talk about Black marginalization in the culinary industry, but were forced to adopt de-racialized tropes of gender and class marginalization used by whites, particularly women and those who are not classically trained.

Black participants also lacked what Wilderson describes as “political presence” in that they were denied cultural and institutional authority. Although Blacks don’t automatically cook (or eat) “soul food,” they are often relegated to doing so regardless of training. While “ghettoizing,” such gestures, as my friend Kevin points out, also imply that soul food has little value to the non-Black culinary world.

Indeed, no chefs were expected to know foods that are culturally associated with Black people, with the exception of the final competitions held in New Orleans on season five. Yet at both dinners, all of the judges were white except for Asian host and judge Padma Lakshmi. Because Bravo TV, which airs Top Chef, doesn’t have all five seasons archived on its website, I can’t say for certain, but I only remember one Black person, chef Govind Armstrong, ever sitting at the judges’ table during deliberations. I only remember four other Black people—and only one of them a chef—serving as guest diners: chef Marcus Samuelsson (whom my friend Kevin points out was not born or raised in the United States), actress and comic Aisha Tyler, sociologist Mary Patillo (who was never introduced to viewers but who I recognized from being in the same profession), and musician Branford Marsalis—who was the lone Black guest at the final New Orleans dinner.

Marsalis even drew attention to his lack of political presence: after listening to others discuss how dishes tasted good but didn’t “pop,” he remarked that chefs talk just like musicians. Although the others tittered, Marsalis, perhaps inadvertently, alluded to the absurdity of his physical presence as a musician at a food competition where all of the other guests were esteemed members of the culinary world—and all non-Black.

Consistent with Yancey’s and Wilderson’s arguments, then, Asian Americans are more present in multiple ways compared to African Americans on Top Chef. Asian Americans compete, host, sample, and judge. We’re recognized as having an identifiable culture and permitted narratives of “Asian Americanness.” Intrusive, limiting, and racist, these narratives nevertheless serve to endear us to non-Asians because they affirm our presumed ethnic “exoticness” while simultaneously re-institutionalizing “universal” ideas related to the white immigrant experience that emphasize outsider status (but not social inequality). And, Asian cuisine is treated as a legitimate cuisine with history, culture, and place as demonstrated by whites citing it as their specialty, talking about taking classes in Asian cooking, or traveling to Asian countries to learn flavors and techniques. Finally, Asian cuisine is racialized as simultaneously traditional and global and therefore marketable to non-Asians.

Enjoyable to watch, Top Chef is, like many pleasures experienced in a racist society, an opportunity for sociological reflection. When the soon to be launched Top Chef Masters airs, I am sure my friend Kevin and I’ll have lots to dish about. And I am certain that the Black/non-Black divide framework will still be useful for understanding the show’s dynamics. The program’s website already tells me as much. Announcing the competition of “24 world-renowned chefs,” its pictures do indeed speak a thousand words. As images of participants reveal, a few Asian Americans will be featured as competitors and host/judge; but this time around, there are literally no Blacks on the show.

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Comments

Your blog was wonderful. I liked the comment regarding Hung "acquiring social skills before my eyes." You are so accurate in that Black chefs are expected to know how to cook soul food, without any sort of formal instruction, and I know that culinary schools don't even mention soul/creole food as a legitimate form of cuisine in any of their training. It's easy for Black chefs to be compartmentalized into only having one skill set, and people falsely accuse them of not having much formal training. Carla, whom is a classically trained French chef, at one point in the show, was seen as one who could only do desserts (apparently from her French Training), but was expected to cook "authentic" soul food out of thin air. She might have the palate for soul and southern regional cuisine, but was expected to get this training outside of the culinary academy. For instance, I know what a good peach cobbler tastes like, but I'll be damned if I can make it myself. As a point of reference, I've tasted it before, and know what (I think) it should taste like, but to assume that I can make it just because I've previously had it, is ludicrous. As you pointed out, white (European) chefs, can talk about nationhood and their own whiteness. It's praised, celebrated, and shared. Nikki from season 4 and Fabio and Leah from season 5 could all talk about being Italian. Scenes, at length, showed them rolling out pasta, and talking about how their grandmothers showed them how to cook. They could talk about what is familiar to them. Moreover, on an episode this past season, the contestants were asked to make a dish that identified or expressed themselves. Stefan made duck and spaetzal with red cabbage, a typical preparation and pairing in Sweden and Germany, whereas Carla made Scallops with risotto and gremolata. Albeit she is perhaps leaning upon her formal French training, why is that we didn't see any "Black Peoples" food? How would Black People's be situated, judged and critiqued against spetzal? It would be seen as peasant or pedestrian, rustic and unrefined. Ironically, spetzal is German comfort food, a dish that is prepared all throughout the region in homes everyday. This really underscores how unimportant Black people are to the culinary world of "haute cuisine" and in general.

Black Chefs are put on the show to be token, but are not expected to win. Nimma from season 4 is a prime example of this. Honory, she fit into the reality tv competition box of "i'm not here to make friends" and isolated herself from the first take, taking a page out of Omorasa from the season 1 of the "Apprentice." She got 15 minutes of air time for this, and was in the bottom of the first quickfire challenge (to make a Chicago style deep dish) and was the first to be eliminated, as she could not properly prepare a reinvented, refined and reinterpreted shrimp scampi. She lacked the basis of the dish, the garlic butter sauce, which scampi is known for, and tried to pair two oversalted U-12 shrimp with a cauliflower flan. The dish was disjunctive. The reach extended the grasp - her aspirations were too high, and her skill set could not match her imagination. She was quickly eliminated and soon forgotten. This instance is all too common for Black chefs on the show. They are token images of equal opportunity, but not serious contenders to actually win.

Another interesting note regarding Top Chef is that most of the Black contestants on the show are caterers and not working in kitchens. There is a way where taking ownership of your business, and not having to deal with unfair hiring practices and working for white people, is displayed on the show. It is reactionary to white racism, and also a quiet commentary on the food industry as well. Tre, Mia, Carla, for instance, all own their own catering companies, and take stock in being business owners. It is also interesting that aside from Carla, neither Tre nor Mia have any formal culinary training. They simply can cook their own food and be independent and in control of their creative motif.

I'd love to see similar analysis on another Bravo favorite of mine (albeit a trashy favorite): Real Housewives of "City." That show perpetuates stereotypes to no end.
OC: Blondes with fake boobs and rich husbands.
NYC: Opinionated, strong, socialite women that play tennis and have houses in the Hamptons.
ATL: Entertainer wives who try desperately to show their wealth through material means. Lots of flash, very little substance.
NJ: Mafia wives.

Would you say these regional stereotypes prepetuate racialization as well

Your article is more racist than what it proposes. As a professional chef
I can tell you from experience that African Americans are not in many professional upscale kitchens. It certainly isn't because
all chefs are racist. On the contrary Asian Americans and naturalized Asians are well spread in kitchens and are diligent and generally hard
workers. An odd observation I made recently was that in Los Angeles nearly all food and restaurant bloggers are from asian descent. Is it an anomoly or is it because they have a predisposed passion written in their DNA.

David, I don't watch "Top Chef," but I am thinking you either did not read Nopper's piece carefully or misunderstood the point of it. Nopper is not saying all chefs are racist (nor is she commenting on the work ethic of Asians in the kitchen or out of it). Indeed, what I really think she and her friend are doing is commenting more on the show's production, first and foremost, and then on some of the comments SOME people on the show have made. Her inclusion of Branford Marsalis' comment demonstrates she is not just picking on chefs.

I say she is commenting on the production first and foremost because one of the biggest issues I view her as having with the show is the lack of blacks accepted to appear on it, period (and, as another commenter wrote, when they do appear it's to serve as tokens who aren't expected to win). Since I don't watch the show, I can't be sure...but I'm thinking the producers of the show are not chefs.

I think you just wanted to find offense with this kind of piece.

K.I.M.--And I agree that you can analyze plenty of other shows for, particularly, for racial and sex/gender issues and increasingly for sexual orientation issues. People find racial disparities on "American Idol" seemingly every season. Analyzing "Real Housewives..." doesn't really seem to fit in with what Nopper has written about, though, so I'm not quite sure where that suggestion came from.

Nopper/Everyday Sociology--excellent stuff. Please be sure to include more of Nopper's pieces. She is simply brilliant!

I DO WATCH TOP CHEF, AND HAVE ALWAYS LIKED THE SHOW, EVEN THOUGH I CAN'T REALLY COOK. I HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED WHY THERE AREN'T ANY BLACK PEOPLE ON THE SHOW AS JUDGES. LIKE YOU SAID THERE WERE A FEW CONTESTANTS, BUT NOT ONE BLACK JUDGE. I LIKE THE SHOW, BUT THE WHOLE THING IS A SCAM IF YOU ASK ME. HOW CAN A FEW PEOPLE JUDGE SOMEONE'S COOKING AND DECIDE WHO IS A TOP CHEF ANYWAY? EVERYONE HAS DIFFERENT TASTE BUDS, SO I DON'T BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY SAY. IT'S REALLY SAD, BUT I DON'T EVEN EXPECT TO SEE MY PEOPLE ON CERTAIN REALITY SHOWS ANYMORE. THAT SAYS MORE ABOUT THE MEDIA THAN IT DOES MY RACE. ALSO, I FEEL LIKE ASIANS ARE JUST AS PREJUDICE TOWARDS BLACK PEOPLE AS WHITE PEOPLE ARE. SO RACISM IS EVERYWHERE WHETHER PEOPLE ACCEPT IT OR NOT.

I have only watched this show a couple of times, but it does seem odd that their are no black judges. Although you are a professional chef David, and you say their are not many African American's in the business, there is no reason they cannot judge the contestants. This being said, the author of the article may just be thinking too much into it. I highly doubt it was the show's purpose to use mostly white contestants.

"...the author of the article may just be thinking too much into it. I highly doubt it was the show's purpose to use mostly white contestants. "

Melissa, this is precisely the reason why American media continues to offend.

A brief foray into the nature of television:

Television is not a fluke. Especially Bravo TV which has increased its revenue significantly with its successful "reality" shows becoming one of the largets cable television networks.

Do you know where revenue comes from?

With an increased viewership, Bravo must seek ways to maintain its fan base so that sponsors and investors (you know, from the product placement in its kitchen to the cars that drive them to and from famous locales to the prizes and the commercials?) continue to pay Bravo for ad time. Advertisers pay Bravo because millions of people are entertained by its programming, thus millions of little eyes and ears are exposed to GE, Whole Foods, Food and Wine magazine, Dial soap, and every brand that the challenges are centered around on a weekly basis. These viewers, a euphemism for consumers, then go out and buy the product. So what Bravo does is dissects its consumer demographic and caters its programming to the most prevalent race/gender/age group of its viewing audience.

Let's get sociological! Bravo TV discovers that their core consumers are white people. Bravo entertainment must reflect that. Herein lies the problem. In a society grappling with a history of racism that persists in the modern day its population's collective racial tolerance is limited. While minorities are no longer legally segregated, mental segregation remains rampant. There is a certain level of expectation that accumulates within the minds of Americans which lends itself to a chicken or the egg? scenario. Is advertising catering to or perpetuating racism? Or both? Would its white consumers be comfortable watching a show whose contestants were mostly white, where the winner would most likely be white?

Top Chef's answer is a resounding 'Yes.' This structure has been tried and true for the past 7 seasons. Therefore, Top Chef casting follows suit. Season after season the cast depicts a controlled "diversity" that won't scare away potential pockets. This is not to say that Bravo or Top Chef exist to promote a racist agenda, but they do serve as actors in an inescapably prejudiced institution.

Very interesting and thoughtful post. I too love Top Chef and enjoy when there's some diversity on the show because sometimes you get diversity in the food that is cooked, but of course not always. I wish Top Chef was more diverse, it would just make the show that much better.

I think that the judges are overall just plain racist! I watch this show season after season. I can read the script of Top Chef like a book. It was obvious that Kenny was going to be put off eventually. I think that they got rid of hime sooner rather than later like they had planned because he was a little too mouthy for them. I don't think that any african-american (black) contestant will ever stand up to their expectations. If Tiffany wins this season, it is only because they are trying to uphold a certain image.

I too like the Top Chef show however, I am getting very upset about the picks. How is it, that blacks were the main one in the kitchens as slaves and after slavery can now be at the bottom of EVERY show for whatever resason they are eliminated. Who are the blacks they pick? Are they just fillers to make the show look "DIVERSE?" Are their foods too seasoned? Did they pick the worst of the blacks that applied, what is it? How is it they every one of them could not make it to the top? I'm sure the blacks that made it to the show are very good in their field. what is the deal? Seeing them loose every time on the show does not motivate our people but demoralizes them.

Here the main order of elimination, watch what happens:
Black female
Black Male
Accent speaking female
Accent speaking Male
Gay White female
White Female
Gay White male

If a White male is up for elimination with any of the above he would have to have done something so obviously wrong to be eliminated.

It all comes down to who they pick to be on the show. This is how they control who wins.

I've watch every show and only a FEW episodes proved me wrong.

This entry is a classic example of an elite liberal finding and creating racism where there wasn't any to begin. Good job! Keep up the special victimization of minorities.

So just because the majority of contestants are white the show is racist. Typical liberal B.S.

It is interesting, but sad that America still has a segment of the population that refuses or cannot recognize prejudice when and where it exists. Rather than acknowledge it so that it can be correct it, it is discounted as black “victimization”. The shallow thinking of the likes of Dahria is why progress is impeded. Moreover, I say prejudice because prejudice is not necessarily racism.

Prejudice has a lesser agenda, which Ms Washington points out, but wrongly concludes.
If as Washington contends it is all about audience, rating and sponsorship dollars she knows little about the evolution of blacks and the media over the past have century. Whom white audience will and will not view or pay to experience has been the argument in television and film for decades. Since Nat King Cole was the only black television program that was true. At the same time the apartheid government of South Africa was offering Sammy Davis, Jr. 5 times his contract to perform there. No he did not go. White audiences and sponsors have no problem spending millions of predominately-black sports programming. Sponsors spent millions on Tiger Woods in a sport dominated by affluent white exclusive country club member social conservatives. Can you say NFL or NBA? The Bill Cosby has set records in every thing he has done. A host of black film stars from Sidney to Denzel; music performers from opera to blues (including hip-hop) are not multi-millionaires because of 12% of the population. Advertisers pay for bodies or eyeballs on their ads, not color. Those days are long gone. Dollars to the Latino community is skyrocketing. Whites are not learning Spanish to watch Latino television.

I have black heart surgeons and brain surgeon who perform at exclusive white hospitals who lead their field internationally whose patients are 90% white. Obama is not president without a majority white vote.

Dr. Noppers articulately documents the facts where they line. That does not mean the industry is racist. Bravo is an entity of NBC Universal, hardly a racist media company. It means that Bravo, one program, is produced by some who have prejudices within their discipline or thinking. Why should an individual chef who is black have to know how to prepare soul food? African-African culture is not monolithic any more than any other is.

I am a private equity manager who owns one of the more haute chocolat concerns in Southern California. I create original as well as traditional European influenced chocolates to the affluent “west side” and Orange County. Not a Saturday goes by that a white customer does not question or is amazed that a black man owns and creates such luxury chocolate. And not bar-b-que?

As with the producers of Top Chef, it is not unusual that some whites tend toward protecting their “space” or lean toward what is comfortable for them - embracing their own life experience. That is not necessary racism, but definitely evidences prejudice. The best that can be hoped for is that more blacks with enter the culinary field at greater numbers, so that more can vault to the pinnacle as in any other profession. Sometime it is about numbers. Not advertising dollar numbers – ours represented by exposure.

Edited:
It is interesting, but sad that America still has a segment of the population that refuses or cannot recognize prejudice when and where it exists. Rather than acknowledge it so that it can be correct it, it is discounted as black “victimization”. The shallow thinking of the likes of Dahria is why progress is impeded. Moreover, I say prejudice because prejudice is not necessarily racism.

Prejudice has a lesser agenda, which Ms Washington points out, but wrongly concludes.
If as Washington contends it is all about audience, rating and sponsorship dollars she knows little about the evolution of blacks and the media over the past half century. Whom white audience will and will not view or pay to experience has been the argument in television and film for decades. Since Nat King Cole was the only black television program that was true. At the same time the apartheid government of South Africa was offering Sammy Davis, Jr. 5 times his contract to perform there. No he did not go. White audiences and sponsors have no problem spending millions of predominately-black sports programming. Sponsors spent millions on Tiger Woods in a sport dominated by affluent white exclusive country club member social conservatives. Can you say NFL or NBA? The Bill Cosby has set records in every thing he has done. A host of black film stars from Sidney to Denzel; music performers from opera to blues (including hip-hop) are not multi-millionaires because of 12% of the population. Advertisers pay for bodies or eyeballs on their ads, not color. Those days are long gone. Dollars to the Latino community is skyrocketing. Whites are not learning Spanish to watch Latino television.

Dr. Noppers articulately documents the facts where they lie. That does not mean the industry is racist. Bravo is an entity of NBC Universal, hardly a racist media company. It means that Bravo, one program, is produced by some who have prejudices within their discipline or thinking. Why should an individual chef who is black have to know how to prepare soul food? African-African culture is not monolithic any more than any other is.

I am a private equity manager who owns one of the more haute chocolat concerns in Southern California. I create original as well as traditional European influenced chocolates to the affluent “west side” and Orange County. Not a Saturday goes by that a white customer does not question or is amazed that a black man owns and creates such luxury chocolate. And not bar-b-que?

As with the producers of Top Chef, it is not unusual that some whites tend toward protecting their “space” or lean toward what is comfortable for them - embracing their own life experience. That is not necessary racism, but definitely evidences prejudice. The best that can be hoped for is that more blacks with enter the culinary field at greater numbers, so that more can vault to the pinnacle as in any other profession. Sometimes it is about numbers. Not advertising dollar numbers – ours represented by exposure.

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