Why I love Top Chef 21 seasons later

I have always enjoyed Top Chef since it first aired. I find I learn something new each episode and enjoy the camaraderie amongst the chefs. This season, as Darcie reported last year, Kristin Kish replaced Padma Lakshmi as the host and I am loving her in that role. She has been in the same shoes as the chefs and I find her presence refreshing.

Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish and Gail Simmons on “Top Chef” (David Moir/Bravo)

Last season, Season 20, was a favorite of mine as the chefs competed in London and Paris. It was like reliving my trip there. In 2002, my husband and I went to London and Paris on our honeymoon. It was an exciting trip even though I didn’t get to go to spots that are now on my bucket list such as Borough Market and Fortnum & Mason in London and the fancy pastry shops, flea markets, and gourmet markets in Paris.

We did make it to Harrod’s which was an incredible experience and ate at fun restaurants and a lovely hotel for tea. In Paris, we frequented bistros, affordable nice restaurants, and had crepes and sandwiches from sidewalk vendors. The majority of the time was spent visiting as many sites as possible.

I did have two memorable experiences from Paris to share before returning to Top Chef. My husband who had assured me that thanks to his two years of high-school French he would be able to adequately navigate the city ended up ordering me a pork trotter at a bistro. I thought that a pork trotter might be a pork chop – and only wanted it because it was served with frites. I mean one must have frites in France!

When the waiter placed a plate with a deeply fried pork foot in front of me I was shocked – I should have put it together – trotter – foot – but it was an exhausting trip and I trusted Mr. High-School French to order. I didn’t complain – I just ate my frites and warm soda (more on that below). A few minutes after dropping off the plate, the waiter returned and asked in French – something along the lines of “what is wrong with your dish?” I said nothing. He asked again and I gleaned that he wanted to know why I didn’t touch it. He kept pushing and ended up bringing over the manager. I felt as if I were insulting them – but I didn’t want to make a big deal of the situation – we made the error not them. But after being badgered – nicely – I said frustrated at the situation of them not letting it go – “It’s a foot! It’s a foot!”. And ended up pointing to my foot.

Now my grandmother, one of the first female butchers in the meat packing section of E. St. Louis, always made pigs feet in her pressure cooker – but I never wanted anything to do with them. The manager and waiter tried to offer me something else – and I politely said, “no thank you.” My husband decided that he would try to eat some of the trotter in an attempt to appease the staff – but it was so tough that I defied him to find an edible bite – he did not. The funny part of this story is that the following evening – we saw the waiter on the Metro. He took one look at us and immediately got up and went to the other end of the train. I’m not sure why – we tipped him well – it wasn’t his fault my husband ordered me a shoe for dinner.

The second embarrassing incident was our quest for ice – it was as if we were seeking out a unicorn. Back at the hotel, we asked the desk clerk who spoke some English about the possibility of the hotel having access to ice. He said, “Ice – you mean ice cream?” We explained further and he said something along the lines of “There is no such thing in all of France.” He did give us some ice cube bags so that we could make our own in the hotel’s freezer. We Americans are so spoiled.

Back to Top Chef, this season the chefs are cooking in Wisconsin which has my wheels turning to pay a visit to that beautiful state. I particularly enjoyed last night’s episode that featured the city of Madison and Supper Clubs.

In the U.S., a supper club is a dining establishment which is concentrated in the Upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. The Supper Club is a traditional dining establishment that also functions as a social club. In general, supper clubs tend to present themselves as having a high-class image but still affordable to all. The featured Supper Club was The Harvey House which is situated behind Madison’s Historic Train Depot.

Credit: Wisconsin State Journal

The chefs were able to eat at The Harvey House before their challenge of creating dishes with their own twists which was to occur the following day. The food served looked impressive as does their menu. Wisconsin and The Harvey House are now on my bucket list along with a visit to Door County. To prepare for such a trip, I just ordered Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook: Iconic Fare and Nostalgia from Landmark Eateries.

So back to the reason I decided to write about Top Chef. I am impressed how the show highlights each location so brilliantly along with the traditional cuisine of that area. I also enjoy learning about chefs who made an impact on the city and those new chefs that bring the offerings of the city/state to their restaurant tables.

Credit: Wisconsin Public Radio

Last night, we learned about Carson Gulley who was head chef at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1926 to 1954. He is known in part for popularizing a recipe for fudge-bottom pie that is still served on campus today. The exact recipe can be found in the 1956 cookbook which can be downloaded for free below and the version served currently can be found here. The refectory where he once served as head chef is now known as Carson Gulley Commons. It was the first university building at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to be named after an African American.

Gulley was also a local pioneer in television and radio cooking programming. From 1953 to 1962, Gulley had his own weekly cooking show, called “What’s Cooking”, on local television station WMTV. Also, in 1953, he hosted a twice-weekly local radio cooking program, called “WIBA Cooking School of the Air”, and each month compiled the program’s recipes in booklets that listeners could request by mail. He and his wife Beatrice were the first African American couple to host their own television show in Wisconsin in the 1950s!

So, of course, I am now on the hunt for Seasoning Secrets: Herbs and Spices a cookbook that was published in 1949 at the suggestion of George Washington Carver. I did find that you can download a copy of the 1949 book on the University’s website along with the 1956 title, Seasoning Secrets and Favorite Recipes of Carson Gulley here University’s website.

I hope Top Chef continues to feature great food cities around the world so that I can continue to expand my horizons.

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  • darcie_b  on  April 19, 2024

    If you ever get to visit me in Minnesota, I can take you to a great hidden gem of a supper club inexplicably called Ranchero (inexplicably because German food is at its core). I’m envious of your trip to France, except for the trotters part. My grandparents ate those (along with chicken feet) but I was never a fan.

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