Why Project Runway is Superior to Top Chef

Early on, Misty and I didn’t watch a lot of reality TV. We watched the first season of Survivor and part of the US version of Big Brother, but after that brief flirtation, we were done.

Bravo changed that. Project Runway snagged both of us in large part because its contestants have to make clothing. The creative aspect tempers the usual clash of personalities and sparks my interest because, hey, I’m always interested in the creative process.

The same dynamic is what drew us to Top Chef. In the former, contestants make clothes under various wacky constraints and have fashion and design experts judge their efforts. In the latter, contestants cook food under various wacky constraints and have chefs and food experts judge their efforts.

Despite those similarities, I find Top Chef to be far less enthralling than Project Runway. I’ve been puzzling over that for a while now. It’s not like I’ll ever make clothes, whereas I have at least a passing chance of making the food from Top Chef. And yet, I enjoy watching Project Runway more.

There are, I have decided, three major differences between the shows that explain my reaction. The first is how the challenges are set up. In Project Runway, all of the designers are given a task and work to complete it. At the end, models wear the designers’ clothes in a runway show. Top Chef episodes begin with a “Quickfire Challenge,” in which the chefs must make something very fast and under constraints that allow for the maximum product placement. Only after the quickfire challenge is complete do they move on to the “Elimination Challenge”. This two-challenge setup steals momentum from the show and keeps you from seeing much of what the chefs are doing. With as many contestants as they have, they have to move quickly to show you all of the finished dishes, and with two challenges, they can’t spend much time showing the actual cooking. The result is that I see less process in Top Chef than I do in Project Runway.

The second difference is that I can see how good a garment looks but I can’t taste how good a dish is. When a judge on Project Runway says that a dress is hanging poorly, I can look and see, indeed, that is one off-kilter dress. When a judge on Top Chef says that a dish isn’t acidic enough, I can’t tell. Watching Project Runway and listening to the judges has taught me more about how to appreciate clothes. Watching Top Chef has taught me that I don’t like Marcel’s troll-doll hair.

The third, most crippling difference is Top Chef‘s lack of a mentor. Project Runway has Tim Gunn, Chair of Fashion Design at the clunkily-named Parsons The New School for Design. Tim serves as the designer’s Virgil. He introduces challenges to them, interacts with them regularly, and gives constructive feedback as they work on their clothing. He has a dry sense of humor, a good eye, and most importantly, he seems to really want to help the designers. His caring how they do balances out the inevitable harshness of being judged. Oh, and he isn’t a judge, which levels the power imbalance between the designers and him. On the other side, there’s Tom Colicchio, late of Gramercy Tavern. The Television Without Pity folks have taken to calling his interactions with the chefs the “sniff and sneer”. He comes in while they’re cooking, raises his eyebrows, makes dismissive remarks, and waltzes out. Later he judges their creations. At no point does he give really useful feedback. During the current season of Top Chef, Ted Allen of Queer Eye fame was a guest judge and gave constructive criticism to the chefs. It was refreshing.

Two of the above are structural problems, and could be changed for future seasons of Top Chef. Being unable to judge the results, however, is a deal-breaker. Since I’m more interested in the creative process than in the human drama, Project Runway wins hands-down.

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