Most reality TV competition shows are only slightly intertwined with the industries they attempt to mirror in stressful, episodic installments. Winning Top Model does not guarantee you’ll becoming a top model, winning The Voice does not guarantee you’ll become a famous singer, and Project Runway most certainly does not make you a famous fashion designer. There’s a reason these shows often feature cameos, in the form of hosts or judges, from B-list talent; to those actually successful in the industries hopeful contestants are trying to squeeze their way into, reality TV is still seen as corny, a sensationalized version of what it’s really like to be a model, or singer, or designer.
But since its premiere, Bravo’s reality TV cooking competition Top Chef has done something few industry-specific reality competitions have: earned the respect and acclaim of actual top chefs. The show has seen a revolving door of famous judges from Martha Stewart to Eric Ripert and celebrity guests like Nancy Pelosi and Chris Pratt. The show is so well respected it spawned a “Masters” spin-off, where actual professional chefs, many of whom who had come on the mainstay program as judges, compete against one another simply because they want to. Winning or runner-up chefs from the original Top Chef frequently go on to have successful restaurants of their own or reach household name status, like Carla Hall. But before Top Chef was a buttoned-up gem of a reality TV program with celebrity guests and fancy schmancy judges it was absolute chaos, struggling to find its rhythm and tone as a fledgling competition. And its second season now streaming on Hulu captures a moment before the show became a competitive institution. It’s perfect reality television simply because everyone competing doesn’t really seem to give a shit.
Top Chef most recently aired its 17th season, an “All-Stars” installment featuring losing chefs from previous seasons. By now the chefs who come onto the show, whether already experienced in the Top Chef universe or newbies to the program, maintain a level of respect for the judging process. But the contestants on the show’s second season have little respect for judges Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi. Frequently chefs seem fed up with the confines of the challenges, which only get weirder and weirder, and deeply annoyed at the judges. In one episode, contestant Elia Aboumrad is so confused by Colicchio’s picks for winning chefs whose food she tasted and then “spit out,” that she spends most of the episode, cooking for the late Anthony Bourdain I might add, truly not giving a fuck. “Is there any point for me to cook?” she says, exasperated in the aisles of a food supply warehouse. Then there’s Michael Midgley, the Jeff Spicoli of the group, who seems to sleep-walk through challenges. At one point in order to purchase some beer simply to drink during a challenge and stay under his budget, he ditches some artisanal cheeses in the grocery line that seem pretty important to his dish. You know, the thing that will keep him from getting sent home?
And then there’s the drama between the contestants, which reached a fever-pitch so intense that a contestant was actually sent home for manhandling another contestant while trying to shave his hair off. The show spawned an infamous TV villain in Marcel Vigneron, an aggressive know-it-all with Jimmy Neutron hair, who managed to get on literally everyone’s nerves. There’s tons of bickering behind the scenes, as contestants call each other out left and right for cheating in an “I’m not here to make friends” era. Contestants with fine-dining experience balked at cooking all-American fare for regular folks, and contestants who only cook for regular folks balked at having to cook fancy artisanal meals, and seemingly nobody liked any one else’s cooking.
There’s also the issue of the challenges themselves, which are ridiculous. Top Chef challenges in seasons to come can range from basic curveballs (cook a meal only using local California produce, cook a meal using a steakhouse’s freezer ingredients but make it vegetarian) to abstract assignments (cook a meal inspired by a painting, how nice!) But the show’s second season was clearly finding its footing in a reality TV landscape that privileged the absolutely batshit. In one episode the chefs have to make an “amuse-bouche” using only $10 of vending machine ingredients, in another they have to cook breakfast for droves of surfers on a fire pit on a beach without knowing they’d be on a beach in the first place. In one challenge the chefs are instructed to make a meal for a group of overweight children that can only clock in under 500 calories. A registered dietician hovers over every group, furiously calculating the calories in every ingredient.
All of this might sound like a reason to not watch the show. After all, at the time of its release Top Chef’s season season was not well received, in part because of how juvenile the show’s drama was. “In the big picture ‘listening to viewers’ category, we are constantly striving to find the balance between the drama and the cooking, and many of you felt we didn’t hit it right this season,” Andy Cohen wrote in a blog at the time. But there’s something about the show’s shoddy second season that makes for an addictive re-watch. These days Top Chef is pretty polite and glamorous, with trips to places like Macau and Italy for the finales. There are significant perks to saving face on the program, from sponsorship deals to a shiny line to the resumé for future restaurant investments, and so contestants are for the most part on their best behavior; they simply want to cook great food and compete on the merit of their talents alone. But Top Chef’s rough-around-the-edges inception, where episodes overflow with bitchy contestants and terrible food, is a perfect time machine to a bygone era for reality TV rife with petty drama, even if it’s petty drama about who has enough eggs to cook their meal.