“You’ve let your drive and ambition … get in the way of relationships” –Tom Colicchio
My regular readers know I am an avid Top Chef fan; as such, not only did I find Boston Magazine’s recent profile of alum Tiffani Faison worthwhile, it inspired me to rewatch Season 1 of of the franchise. You remember Season 1, the one that cast Faison as Season Villain, as “one of the most controversial characters on the show”. Does that label stand up anymore? Were we fair to slap it on in the first place?
Since 2006 (when Season 1 aired), there’s been periodic chatter wondering whether Tiffani would have been treated in such manner were she a man. Like I said, I rewatched Season 1 in 2019, and I can assure you: it’s not a question of would we have treated a man differently, it’s a definitive answer of we literally did treat men differently by giving them a free pass for far worse behavior. No social scientist could deliberately design a better misogyny-in-action case study than what played out on Top Chef Season 1. Let’s walk through it.
In hindsight, it seems like the souring public opinion of Faison began with Episode 3, which you’ll remember was when the chefs were split into two teams and instructed to make monkfish palatable to a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of America. Faison was on the losing team; Judges Table got a bit heated because the chefs experienced some confusion about the exact parameters upon which their cooking was being evaluated, and the judges were blowing off their concerns. Of course they were angry. Upon rewatching, I will still agree that Tiffani’s comments about the kids were off-putting and unfair. Also, she has since apologized. However. That judges table confrontation should not have been the story from that episode. The winning team, which consisted of (among others) Stephen Asprinio, Lisa Parks, and Candice Kumai, displayed utter chaos during the planning stages, the nature of which should have sparked enough viewer outrage to last a lifetime. Stephen spent the entire planning session exhibiting outright misogyny toward Lisa by shouting over her and ignoring her unique expertise: she was the only parent on a cooking-for-kids challenge. His treatment of Candice bordered on literal sexual harassment. He screamed at her, insulted her personally, and maligned her ideas simply because they were hers. That should have disgusted everyone and followed him the rest of that season, and hell, maybe the rest of his life if he never repented (to my knowledge, he has not). Yet Stephen was never held to account for the way he degraded Candice, nor for the way he so comfortably sidelined and never acknowledged Lisa. And I think it gets even worse: Bravo has, in subsequent seasons, taken pains to paper over Stephen’s sins and make sure he is portrayed as nothing more than a stuffy, but ultimately benign, windbag.
Now let’s discuss Miguel Morales. Bravo went to great lengths to portray Miguel as a loveable, charismatic, jovial bear hug of a person. But rewatch Season 1, and you’ll plainly see the light of day reveals a hot-headed, entitled, mediocre misogynist, a walking embodiment of White Male Privilege. He lost his composure on more than one occasion, he refused to take responsibility for contributions to team challenges that ended up losing, and he quite literally expected others to clean up messes he made (like when he overflowed the dishwasher and then pouted when he had to mop the floor all by his lonesome self). I’m sure you remember Ted Allen’s Dinner Party episode, where Miguel completely lost his shit after realizing he confused salt for sugar while making a sorbet. His emotional outburst must have been so unnerving to the other chefs trying to stay focused on their work while sharing a small space with a yelling, tantruming grown man. Tiffani and Leanne Wong were correct to point out his lack of professionalism at Judges Table. Miguel confronted Tiffani about what it, and she quickly found herself in a verbally abusive conversation that she was right to leave. He refused to let her explain what she’d said to the judges, talked over her, then name-called when she exited the conversation. Every woman in any industry knows a Miguel. What he’s really saying is that women aren’t permitted to disagree with him or criticize his behavior, and there’s a threatening price to pay if they do. No, Bravo, that is not loveable.
I can see how Tiffani occasionally ruffled some feathers. She didn’t always express her criticisms in the most constructive manner, and at times she seemed unnecessarily snippy. As my white collar corporate world inhabiting husband pointed out, “she lacked soft skills.” But given the aforementioned male behavior on the show, how was she the villain? Put another way: if you are on a team with someone, who would you rather work with? Someone driven and hardworking with a clear rooting interest in the team’s success but who occasionally takes an off-putting tone; or someone who yells at you, shouts over your expertise, degrades you personally, is prone to throwing fits, skips out on important tasks, and blames specifically women for his own mistakes? As Mr. Wallace put it, “Tiffani would’ve occasionally frustrated the hell out of me. But with Stephen or Miguel, I’d be documenting.”
The season finale served as a vehicle for both crowning Harold Dieterle as Top Chef and tying a tidy, sexist bow on the Tiffani-as-Villain story arc. Both contestants were tasked with cooking a multi-course dinner complete with wine pairings for a panel of esteemed chefs and industry insiders. To accomplish this, each were given two sous-chefs in the form of the most recently eliminated contestants. Harold’s service seemed peaceful and smooth being assisted by Leanne and Miguel, and we are informed AD NAUSEUM during the entire episode it’s because he’s such a nice-guy, inclusive boss, not because Leanne and Miguel showed up and just did their jobs like they were supposed to. Tiffani, assigned Stephen and Dave Martin, endured a right good nightmare. On the day of service, they both showed up hours late and hungover as FUCK. They drank and slacked off while working, and put wine glasses near the food being prepared (which could have ruined an entire dish had one broken). Tiffani couldn’t rely on them much due to their alcohol impairment. She told them to remove wine glasses from the line and to not talk and goof off while she was trying to concentrate on a time-sensitive and important task – in other words, to take things seriously as they were contractually obligated to do. Instead of apologizing for screwing up and being unreliable, they whined to the judges about her mean tone of voice. Not once was their version of events questioned.
The Season 1 narratives that remained unchallenged until now were that apparently the male sous-chefs’ comfort while working is more important than a woman’s desire to win a competition and not look like an ass in front of respected members of her profession; and secondly that it was somehow Tiffani’s job to “inspire” them to act like civilized, responsible human beings. If they didn’t, then it must be her lack of leadership and not their immaturity or unprofessionalism. It’s notable how perfectly comfortable Dave and Stephen felt in making such misogynist claims, but why shouldn’t they be when said claims were bought wholesale and championed by the only penis at the finale judging table: Tom Colicchio. Of the three women judges, only Lorraine Bracco half-heartedly said she didn’t really care about the “behind-the-scenes drama.”
When Tiffani and Harold are finally brought before Judges Table for the last round of questioning, the blatant sexism only continues. Colicchio kept harping on Tiffani for her “attitude” and it quickly became obvious Tiffani felt she had to grovel in gratitude for any help her sous-chefs provided, plus defend herself from pernicious nit-picking over THEIR contributions. She was held to the female likeability standard instead of being judged on her professional merits. She deserved a medal for putting up with Dave and Stephen’s shenanigans. Their offenses were likely fireable in the real world, yet Tiffani had to metaphorically suck their dicks at Judges Table for even a chance at winning. It’s obvious she was put in a position where she didn’t feel comfortable saying, either to them or to the judges, “You two are unprofessional dickheads engaging in unacceptable behavior and I’m not going to let you fuck me over.” It’s clear speaking the truth would have cost her. Once again, a woman’s skills and ambition have to take a backseat to a man’s antics, even when she’s in the boss’ position. The Bravo-directed near-constant braying about Amazing, Super-Collaborative chef-boss Harold was such a transparent set-up to justify Tiffani’s loss, which of course begs the question: why couldn’t Tiffani simply lose because her food wasn’t as good as his?
Sourced from: Taste of the South Magazine
Pimento Cheese with Herbs and Capers
- 2 cups mild Cheddar cheese (I prefer yellow because tradition)
- 1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
- 1 4 oz. jar diced pimentos, drained
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- ¼ tsp onion powder
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- ¼ cup scallions, chopped, plus more for garnish
- 3 tbs drained capers, plus more for garnish
- 2 tsp chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
- ⅛ tsp lemon zest
- Ritz crackers, for serving
- In a large-ish mixing bowl, stir together Cheddar, cream cheese, pimentos, mayonnaise, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, green onions, capers, fresh dill, and lemon zest. Stir until well combined and no streaks of cream cheese or mayonnaise are visible. Transfer the pimento cheese to a serving bowl where it fits snugly. Garnish with scallions, capers, and chopped fresh dill. Serve immediately with Ritz crackers. If you have leftovers, the best storage method is in the original bowl or a smaller one with plastic wrap over top.