Top Chef and the Black/Non-Black Divide
By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania
I love the show Top Chef. I watch it religiously and regularly chat about it with fellow fan and friend Kevin Eddington. Although more of a foodie than me—he actually knows what sous vide means—we share concerns about the show’s racial dynamics, some of which I want to discuss here. Specifically, I want to explore how Asian Americans and African Americans are represented on Top Chef and in the process, draw from approaches emphasizing the Black/non-Black divide.
The Black/non-Black framework is proposed by George Yancey in his book Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide. According to Yancey, this framework is more helpful for analyzing racism than a white/non-white paradigm because Blacks experience a unique degree of social isolation, as evidenced by how whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans reject them as potential neighbors and marriage partners yet remain open to each other. Yancey’s conclusion bears out on the show.
Asian Americans are present as contestants, chefs, judges, and of course, hosts, and Hung Huynh won the title on season three. Yet Asian Americans face particular racial expectations: they’re encouraged to talk about their ethnicities or immigration histories, badmouthed for cooking too many Asian-influenced dishes, or expected to cook Asian food regardless of training. For example, Huynh was told that despite his skill and “technique,” his food lacked “soul.”
White head judge Tom Colicchio, reminding Huynh of Huynh’s Vietnamese background, said he didn’t “see” him in his food. Such comments reinforce the model minority myth, which celebrates “Asian” work ethic and mechanical productivity while denying us unconditional subjectivity, sociability, and authority automatically afforded whites.
Ultimately Huynh incorporated Asian-influenced flavors into his final meal in hopes of revealing his “authentic” (ethnic) self to the judges. As Huynh tried to express “soul,” his (aired) image shifted from a technically efficient, ultra-competitive, and unlikable Asian to a more humbled Asian eager to take advantage of American opportunities available to him and other immigrants, making one blogger conclude, “he seemed to…acquire social skills in front of my eyes.”
Whereas Asian Americans are racialized in ways that whites aren’t— white contestants aren’t expected to cook foods of their ethnicities so that judges “know” them—African Americans, for the most part, are physically absent from the show. Yet as Frank B. Wilderson, III explains in the anthology Biko Lives!, even when physically present, Blacks remain absent. Despite the popularity and skills of Tre Wilcox and Carla Hall, they exemplify what Wilderson describes as “the absence of a subjective presence.” Unlike Asian Americans, who could explicitly reference their ethnic backgrounds, they could not. They couldn’t talk about Black marginalization in the culinary industry, but were forced to adopt de-racialized tropes of gender and class marginalization used by whites, particularly women and those who are not classically trained.
Black participants also lacked what Wilderson describes as “political presence” in that they were denied cultural and institutional authority. Although Blacks don’t automatically cook (or eat) “soul food,” they are often relegated to doing so regardless of training. While “ghettoizing,” such gestures, as my friend Kevin points out, also imply that soul food has little value to the non-Black culinary world.
Indeed, no chefs were expected to know foods that are culturally associated with Black people, with the exception of the final competitions held in New Orleans on season five. Yet at both dinners, all of the judges were white except for Asian host and judge Padma Lakshmi. Because Bravo TV, which airs Top Chef, doesn’t have all five seasons archived on its website, I can’t say for certain, but I only remember one Black person, chef Govind Armstrong, ever sitting at the judges’ table during deliberations. I only remember four other Black people—and only one of them a chef—serving as guest diners: chef Marcus Samuelsson (whom my friend Kevin points out was not born or raised in the United States), actress and comic Aisha Tyler, sociologist Mary Patillo (who was never introduced to viewers but who I recognized from being in the same profession), and musician Branford Marsalis—who was the lone Black guest at the final New Orleans dinner.
Marsalis even drew attention to his lack of political presence: after listening to others discuss how dishes tasted good but didn’t “pop,” he remarked that chefs talk just like musicians. Although the others tittered, Marsalis, perhaps inadvertently, alluded to the absurdity of his physical presence as a musician at a food competition where all of the other guests were esteemed members of the culinary world—and all non-Black.
Consistent with Yancey’s and Wilderson’s arguments, then, Asian Americans are more present in multiple ways compared to African Americans on Top Chef. Asian Americans compete, host, sample, and judge. We’re recognized as having an identifiable culture and permitted narratives of “Asian Americanness.” Intrusive, limiting, and racist, these narratives nevertheless serve to endear us to non-Asians because they affirm our presumed ethnic “exoticness” while simultaneously re-institutionalizing “universal” ideas related to the white immigrant experience that emphasize outsider status (but not social inequality). And, Asian cuisine is treated as a legitimate cuisine with history, culture, and place as demonstrated by whites citing it as their specialty, talking about taking classes in Asian cooking, or traveling to Asian countries to learn flavors and techniques. Finally, Asian cuisine is racialized as simultaneously traditional and global and therefore marketable to non-Asians.
Enjoyable to watch, Top Chef is, like many pleasures experienced in a racist society, an opportunity for sociological reflection. When the soon to be launched Top Chef Masters airs, I am sure my friend Kevin and I’ll have lots to dish about. And I am certain that the Black/non-Black divide framework will still be useful for understanding the show’s dynamics. The program’s website already tells me as much. Announcing the competition of “24 world-renowned chefs,” its pictures do indeed speak a thousand words. As images of participants reveal, a few Asian Americans will be featured as competitors and host/judge; but this time around, there are literally no Blacks on the show.