I have this theory that Top Chef has made me a better cook. It doesn’t quite make sense. I have never tried to make any of the recipes from the show, though many are available online; nor have I bought Top Chef: The Cookbook, Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook, or How to Cook Like a Top Chef, all published by Chronicle Books. The show itself, with its fast-paced approach to kitchen challenges, is certainly not geared toward the teaching of cooking techniques, unless you’re keen to learn how to prepare a meal using only a can opener, or with one hand tied behind your back.
There is something edifying, though, in learning a bit of the language of cooking and eating. Since I began watching the show regularly, I have found myself thinking beyond the questions of “more salt? less salt?” to whether my foods might need more acidity, brightness, or contrasting textures or temperatures.
Beyond this new vocabulary (which always brings with it new understandings), I have found that the show has made me more comfortable in the kitchen. I have always been a competent recipe follower, but in the last few years I’ve become braver about experimenting.
Chef Carla Hall, who made it to the finale in Season 5 of Top Chef, and finished fifth in Season 8, Top Chef: All Stars, would perhaps be happy to hear this. In her cookbook, Cooking With Love: Comfort Food That Hugs You (Atria Books), Hall writes, “I wanted to make the dishes I loved from home and explore the endless possibilities of making them even better.” Anyone who watched Carla on the show will be familiar with her philosophy toward cooking: cook with love, and never from fear. Applied to the comfort foods for which she is famous, this philosophy becomes a bit more interesting. It means that yes, you should make your grandmother’s chicken pot pie that you always loved without fear of messing it up, but also without being afraid to change it to suit your tastes or needs.
It is not surprising, then, that Hall’s book is a combination of recipes both for the comfort foods you would expect (Smothered Pork Chops, Chicken Pot Pie, and yes, Creamy Mac and Cheese) and for dishes a bit more unexpected. There are, I’m sure, people out there who take comfort from Watermelon Gazpacho, Spring Pea Flan, or Marinated Flank Steak, but these foods do not fall within the traditional boundaries of “Comfort Food.” But that’s the point.
Hall describes her food as “A joyful and sophisticated marriage of French techniques, global flavors, and Southern soul.” It took her some time to really embrace that marriage, however. In one of the vignettes that break up the book’s recipes, Hall explains that when she first began cooking professionally she wanted nothing to do with her Southern roots. It took time and bravery for her to return to her grandmother’s recipes, realizing that she could bring her own techniques and style to the foods she grew up eating.
Though Carla never won Top Chef, her approach to cooking, and this sense that it requires both bravery and love, is exemplified by the show. It’s hard not to feel brave in your own kitchen after watching chefs use an entire pig in their dishes, as they did in Season 4, or recreate dishes from a 6-course lunch after having tasted them only once, as the chefs in Season 5 did. Seen in this light, the idea of creating healthier versions of your favorite recipes, as Hall advocates in her book, or even adding mushrooms to your grandmother’s casserole the next time you make it seems not so scary.
Which Top Chef challenge has inspired you to pick up your knives? Let us know in the comments section.