[Spoiler Warning: If you've not yet seen the latest episode of Top Chef, which was Part One of a two-part finale, you might want to skip this post.]
So, in last night's episode of Top Chef, the winner of Last Chance Kitchen came back into the competition and OMG YAY it was Kristen, who has been my favorite cheftestant all season. I also really love Brooke, and Sheldon is fine (though my opinion of him diminished considerably after his quips about how he couldn't parent his three daughters on his own the way his wife does and how the best MAN should win, emphasis on MAN; he made certain we understood the joke about how neither of the WOMEN should win), so it was pretty great to go into the finale with three cheftestants I like. I can't even remember the last time that happened.
Naturally, I was hoping, even before Sheldon's ha ha sexist jokes, that one of the women would win, because in the history of the show and its ten seasons (plus several Masters and All-Stars seasons), only one female chef, Stephanie Izard, has won.
And lo and behold, Sheldon was told to pack his knives and go, so we are left with two female finalists, thus ensuring a female victory on Top Chef. Huzzah!
When Stephanie Izard won, despite her having been a strong contender all season, runner-up Richard Blais was said to have "choked." The message on the show was that Richard would have (and should have) won, if only he hadn't "choked." This frame was further reinforced during the All-Stars season that he won, as the narrative throughout was that it was a chance for Richard to achieve "redemption," after virtually handing the win to Stephanie by "choking."
The only female chef to ever have won has been routinely undermined by this idea that she only won because Richard made a huge mistake, as opposed to having won because she's super awesome and, by the way, has one of the most popular eateries in Chicago because she is so super awesome.
On last night's episode, the show already seemed to be offering up a similar frame for Sheldon, who didn't cook "his food." He abandoned the style with which they were familiar, in his words to show his growth as a chef, but oh how the judges lamented that Sheldon didn't cook like Sheldon, the implication being that he choked at the finish line.
I don't think the intent of the show and its judges/producers is explicitly to undermine female chefs. Rather, I think there is an urge to offer redemption stories to male chefs who come so close, because of all the various reasons that urges to coddle male ego, even at the expense of female ego, exist throughout a culture that privileges maleness.
But the practical effect is nonetheless undermining female chefs.
This is a narrative problem of which the show must be aware, and to which it must be sensitive, if it really wants its audience to believe that it doesn't prefer male chefs to win.
A woman apparently can't win Top Chef outside the frame that a man fucked up. It's never that she outcooked him at the top of his game.
This is a problem.