Legitimacy, Cultural Production, and Top Chef
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The distribution of capital (value/acclaim) is rooted in existing social hierarchies and the relative value of positions within the cultural milieu. In the world of haute cuisine, the value of products and producers is intimately tied to the gendered organization of the professional kitchen and societal norms and expectations about men’s versus women’s work. Previous work exploring legitimacy in culinary arts has found that female chefs are relegated to the home kitchen while men dominate professional spaces. Women are lauded for comfort cooking while men are praised for quality and skill.
Competitive reality television is a persistent and popular form of entertainment that is often overlooked in its ability to reify and promote social inequalities. Bravo TV’s Top Chef combines elements of competitive reality television with the elite world of culinary arts and fine dining. The purpose of this study is to explore the way that value is established, debated and potentially negated on TV’s Top Chef. Is value awarded differently based on race or gender?
I conducted a thematic content analysis of twelve episodes spanning three seasons of Bravo TV’s Top Chef, focusing on the judges’ critiques as well as the interactions and personal commentaries of the contestants. Results show that while Top Chef provides a seemingly level playing field across gender, race, and training the contestants themselves still enact the creation and definition of boundaries for access to legitimacy in fine dining around existing social hierarchies. Furthermore, marginalized contestants utilize a persistent “rags-to-riches” narrative to gain cultural legitimacy. While food appears to be judged meritocratically by characteristics of the chef, the value is determined by its distance from food associated with the masses.