About halfway through the first episode of Life After Top Chef (Bravo, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), an elderly diner compliments a tasting menu created by Jennifer Carroll, telling her, “This has been one of the most delightful nights we’ve ever had.” There is no danger of anyone saying anything similar after watching Life After Top Chef, a joyless, lifeless attempt by Bravo to squeeze a little more juice out of the desiccated husk of one of its most successful franchises.
I’ve never been a Top Chef fan. As others have noted, with shows like American Idol and Project Runway, viewers can see or hear the contestants’ music or designs and judge them on their merits, which is impossible in the case of a televised cooking contest. But I know plenty of people whose taste in schlock I respect who swore that the drama, the competition, the mouthwatering descriptions of haute cuisine dishes made the show enormously gratifying.
All three are missing from Life After Top Chef, which follows four of the series’ most narcissistic alumni—Carroll (from Season 6), Richard Blais (Season 4), Spike Mendelsohn (Season 4), and Fabio Viviani (Season 5)—as they grapple unsuccessfully with the fact that they will never again be as famous as they were during their respective seasons of Top Chef.* Since there’s no actual competition—no diabolical challenges, no rules of the game—on this show, each character has been assigned a broadly sketched cross to bear: Carroll is sad because she doesn’t have her own restaurant yet. Blais is having trouble balancing his home and work life. Mendelsohn’s parents (also his business partners) are driving him crazy. Viviani wears too much cologne.
Somehow, this does not make for scintillating television. The producers do their best to inject a little conflict here and there: A griddle breaks at Mendelsohn’s burger joint, and he is annoyed. Carroll wants to serve scallops at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, but the mollusks never arrive, so she has to make do with frozen shrimp instead. Judging from previews, future episodes will involve racecar driving, horseback riding, and live turkey wrangling. Never a dull moment when you’re not quite a top chef!
The chefs seem somewhat invested in overcoming these obstacles, but mostly they all seem resigned to the fate of doing as many Top Chef spinoffs and promotions as possible before Bravo 86’s the whole thing. During studio interviews interspersed with the “action,” the subjects’ impatience and disdain for the task at hand is palpable; you can tell they just want to give the producers whatever sound bites they need, as quickly as possible, so they can get home to dinner and bed.
There are some watchable moments when the chefs are on their own—moments when you get a sense of the hustle that’s required to make it in the real world as a chef. One highlight is a scene from the cooking class Viviani runs out of his California restaurant, in which he flirts shamelessly with the female fans in the audience and trades homosocial insults with his childhood friend and business partner, Jacopo Falleni, who looks almost identical to Viviani. (Viviani and Falleni are the only participants in the show who have any real chemistry together.) Viviani tells his pupils to “think about when you’re pinching somebody’s butt” when they grab a pinch of salt, and describes his braised chicken as “juicy, moist, sexy, and drunk”—adding with a lascivious grin, “Sounds good to me.” He’s trying too hard, but his fan girls lap it up.
That sexy chicken is one of the few dishes we see at more than one stage in its preparation, and described in any detail, throughout the pilot. Food, taste, ingredients, technique are afterthoughts, mere background for the chefs’ real profession: self-promotion. In Aspen, Carroll gets a moment with Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin and confides that she’s still looking for investors for the restaurant she wants to open—everything else is ready. “Just that one little detail,” jokes Carroll, in a moment of appealing candor, “which is the most important: the money!”
Cowin, noting the camera a few feet away from her face, demurs. “No, the food is the most important,” she replies, knowing that, as the editor of the magazine for which the festival is named, she is expected to offer such soothing platitudes.
Carroll quickly agrees, but neither she nor any of the other chefs shares Cowin’s view. When Carroll gripes to the other chefs about her need for investors, Mendelsohn suggests that she attract them by posing for Playboy. After all, as he says at another point, “Getting yourself out there is what being a modern chef is all about.”
Correction, Oct. 3, 2012: This article originally misspelled Fabio Viviani’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)