The Reality Show That’s Tackling the Toxic Workplace (2024)


Top Chef has spent the past 20 seasons redefining what it means to be a chef—and a leader.

By Megan Garber
The Reality Show That’s Tackling the Toxic Workplace (1)

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In the crowded field of TV cooking shows, Gordon Ramsay looms large. Hell’s Kitchen began airing in 2005, during the heady days of the earliest reality-competition shows, premised on the notion that the art of cooking is best achieved through the craft of bullying. The celebrity chef berated the contestants who doubled as his sous-chefs. He screamed. He mocked. He, more than anyone else, made Hell’s Kitchen hellish—and, in that, his show captured something essential about the industry it claimed to portray. Food preparation is, traditionally, women’s work; commercial kitchens, hectic and hierarchical and male, tend to elide that fact. They take a restaurant’s most basic marketing proposition—it sells stuff you need in order to stay alive—and coat it in thick layers of machismo.

A year after Hell’s Kitchen premiered on Fox, another cooking competition hit the air. Bravo’s Top Chef took the older show’s conceit—a test of the skills required to succeed in high-end kitchens—and made it calmer and kinder. To serve as its head judge, the show recruited Tom Colicchio, a figure who, like Ramsay, was a respected celebrity chef, and who, unlike Ramsay, exuded charismatic affability. Top Chef served as both a competitor to Hell’s Kitchen and a rebuke to it. Chef means leader; chefs, fundamentally, are bosses. And Top Chef, fundamentally, is about the work environments they create as they go about the business of food. The tension between executives and staffers; the frustrations, and delights, of collaboration; the social dynamics that can foster talent or stifle it—Top Chef considers all of that in the gas-fired context of the kitchen.

Top Chef quickly became a juggernaut, gaining a large fan base, several international spin-offs, and widespread influence over the culinary field. It has featured some 300 competitors on its stage. The show, today, is completing its 20th season. Top Chef: World All-Stars, set in London and featuring an international roster of contestants, is both broad in scope and valedictory in tone—a testament to the scale of the franchise. The success has come, in part, from the same things that will give any industry-oriented reality competition its appeal: great production values, compelling cast members, the thrill of watching artists at the top of their game. But the show’s insights about cooking as a profession are what set it apart. Top Chef gained traction as Americans were reconsidering the nature of the workplace, and of work itself. It has spent 17 years considering the kitchen as an office by proxy. The show has offered changing answers, in the process, to a question that shapes both an industry and a culture: What makes a good leader?

Speaking before the judges in an episode of Top Chef Season 1, Dave Martin lost patience with his fellow contestant Tiffani Faison and provided a sound bite for the ages: “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” The line was perfectly calibrated to its moment. This was the “I’m not here to make friends” era of reality television. Top Chef’s 12 contestants lived together while competing against one another, giving the show a base note of The Real World and Survivor. And, for a while, the show found drama in the same way those other series did: Each season had its appointed antiheroes. Some chefs earned their villain edits through arrogance (Season 2’s Marcel Vigneron, lover of culinary foams and the term soigne, quickly won the disdain of his castmates; Season 3’s Hung Huynh, in a talking-head interview, classified himself as a CPA—a “certified professional asshole”).

Later villains brought the Ramsayan approach to the Top Chef kitchen. The show can be an exercise in enforced humility: It turns chefs, many of them used to being executives, into line cooks and sous-chefs. Some contestants have reacted to that dynamic by bullying their competitors. Season 9, Top Chef: Texas, found Heather Terhune so accustomed to deriding her castmate Beverly Kim that she voiced her complaints about Kim’s alleged shortcomings to the judges—even when Kim was her partner in a double-elimination challenge.

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Top Chef premiered a few years after Survivor’s Richard Hatch manipulated his way into $1 million in prize money and reality-TV infamy, and a few years before The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s table flip heard round the world. Its villains were products of their times. But Top Chef’s premise, and its revolving-door relationship with the restaurant industry, meant that its villains were more than entertaining misanthropes. They were also bad colleagues. They turned Top Chef’s kitchen, episode by episode, into a toxic work environment. It didn’t matter, after a while, whether the competitors’ villainy stemmed from their arrogance or their anger or their deviousness or their awareness of the curt mechanics of fame. Wherever it came from, it spread. Watch enough episodes of those early seasons, and you could almost predict which team, in a group challenge, was going to lose. It was the one that had the villain on it.

Top Chef appeals, in part, because it is reliably formulaic: The competitors—and the settings—change, but the seasons’ structures remain the same. The show has retained its three primary judges, Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Padma Lakshmi, since Season 2. (Late last week, Lakshmi announced that Top Chef’s current season is her final one—shaking up not only the show, but also its central triumvirate.) Each episode adheres to the same three-part format: the Quickfire Challenge, the Elimination Challenge, and the Judge’s Table that determines which chef (or, sometimes, chefs) will be eliminated. Each season has culminated in a finale that asks the contestants to create the “meal of their life”—the only one they will make on the show that is relatively free of creative constraints.

But Top Chef’s tone has transformed over the past 17 years. That is in large part because it has done away, effectively, with villainy. There are no obvious villains in Season 20. Nor have there been obvious villains in the many seasons that have preceded it. Instead, as the years have gone on, the show has studiously excised the types of competitors whose attitudes turn them into agents of chaos. In their place are contestants who seem excited to learn from their fellow chefs, to collaborate with them—to be, in every sense, collegial.

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In the story lines it amplifies, too, Top Chef has come to prioritize the friendships that develop among the people who are at once competitors, castmates, and peers. Top Chef: World All-Stars has highlighted the friendship that emerged between Amar Santana, a Dominican American chef, and the Jordanian chef Ali Ghzawi. Season 8, the show’s first all-stars season, delighted in the opposites-attracting closeness that developed between Fabio Viviani, the extroverted Italian chef, and Richard Blais, the cerebral molecular gastronomist. One of the best arcs of Season 15, Top Chef: Colorado, was the siblinglike relationship that arose between two chefs who hailed from Chicago, Adrienne Cheatham and Joe Flamm.

Top Chef did not merely become kinder and less cutthroat over the years; in that, its evolution is akin to that of many other competitive reality shows. (The meadow-bound tent of the Great British Bake Off casts a long shadow.) Instead, the show developed a more precise idea of the product it was actually providing. For Top Chef, Colicchio told me recently, villainy simply didn’t sell. Focus groups that the show’s producers conducted kept revealing that collaboration was Top Chef’s true selling point. You can get melodrama anywhere, but teamwork is much harder to come by. And there’s a certain magic in watching accomplished people collaborate, even in the context of competition.

The show, eventually, came to emphasize, even encourage, collaboration. In a two-day challenge in Season 5, contestants entered the kitchen to discover that a refrigerator storing pork products hadn’t closed properly the night before. The mishap might have spelled disaster for two chefs; rather than letting them flail, though, their competitors rallied to help them create substitute dishes. The judges commended everyone for the teamwork, and then rewarded them for it: No one, Colicchio announced, would be going home after that challenge. Near the end of Season 18, Dawn Burrell, a former Olympian long jumper, cut her finger in the middle of a cook. Her competitors stepped in to help her finish her dish. In earlier seasons, that would have been remarkable; by Season 18, it was standard. The message in the newer approach is simple. As Simmons put it to me, “You don’t need to be an asshole to get ahead.”

“Family” is a refrain on Top Chef. As the show has considered the social dynamics of workplaces, it has also considered how to define those dynamics. Cooks tend to be systematically overworked; the hours they spend in the kitchen are not only intense—the heat, the fire, the knives—but also, simply, long. As Brooke Williamson, Season 10’s runner-up and Season 14’s winner, told me, culinary workers tend to spend more time in the company of their colleagues than they do with anyone else in their life. Such situations are common across industries, but kitchens bring a certain acuity to the imbalance.

Restaurant kitchens, particularly high-end ones, tend to default to two types of language: the martial and the familial. They have lines and brigades, specialized roles and respected ranks. (“Yes, chef” or “Oui, chef” are the acceptable replies to a cook who outranks you.) But they also have family meals. They have deep camaraderie. They lean into the argument that has become, particularly in recent years, a matter of anxiety: that one’s colleagues are one’s family.

Top Chef has embraced that idea. As it has grown, it has talked about itself—its judges, its contestants, its brand—in terms of familial intimacy. “Top Chef family” has become the show’s answer to “Bachelor Nation.” The show has written the notion of the family meal into its challenges. Season 19, Top Chef: Houston, surprised contestants by flying several of their relatives to a vacation home on Galveston Island, where the chefs were asked to create favorite family meals. (The challenge, as so many of Top Chef’s will, involved a commercial partnership—this one with the home-rental service Vrbo.) At another vacation home, this one set in the English countryside, Top Chef: World All-Stars asked its remaining contestants to prepare a potluck meal featuring dishes that were meaningful to their own families.

On the surface, the rhetoric is appealing: It gives Top Chef an air of coziness. It serves as a further rebuke to the notion of chefs as autocrats and auteurs. But Top Chef’s emphasis on family can elide the same thing that everyday workplaces’ emphasis on family can: Chefs are workers. Cooks are laborers. Kitchens are sites of economic transaction. Hugh Acheson, the celebrity chef who has served as both a guest judge on the show and as a competitor on one of its spin-offs, Top Chef: Masters, recently compared the work chefs do on the show to the types of internships common at high-end restaurants: unpaid labor, exchanged for the currency of “experience.”

Top Chef is not Noma; appearing on the show is not the same as apprenticing at a restaurant with no compensation save a line on a résumé. But there are similarities. Contestants are trading, effectively, their labor—paid, but only with meager per diem allowances—for exposure. They are engaging in the same transaction that every reality-TV personality will: They are ceding editorial control to producers. And their professional reputation is at stake in the exchange.

Top Chef walks a fine line. Its premise still relies on the mythology that distinguishes eating from dining, the cook from the chef. But it has lost whatever patience it had for the chefs who cook up toxicity. The show is still an answer to Hell’s Kitchen, but it is also in dialogue with other recent works that examine food culture. The Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table celebrates the myth of the solitary (and usually male) genius; the FX/Hulu series The Bear depicts the unstable masculinity that fills so many commercial kitchens; the recent film The Menu satirizes the hierarchical arrangement of those kitchens—and the absurdity that arises when notions of food-as-community and food-as-artistry collide.

“Nobody does it alone in a restaurant kitchen,” Lakshmi told me. Pragmatically, that has always been the case—even the most celebrated of celebrity chefs will falter if they cannot rely on their team. Culturally, though, it has too often been overlooked. That is changing. Top Chef has been steadily documenting the shift. “The environment in kitchens now is much more collaborative,” Williamson told me. Kitchens are becoming more team-oriented, less despotic. They are, like every workplace, responding to #MeToo and other movements for social justice.

Top Chef has captured both the speed of those developments and the slowness. The show’s 18th season, set in Portland, Oregon, featured a diverse cast and challenges that celebrated the cuisine of the African diaspora and the foodways of Native Oregonians. But soon after the season’s winner, Gabe Erales, was crowned, viewers learned that he had been fired from his restaurant, Comedor, over allegations of sexual harassment. Erales promptly issued an apology.

The postscripts—reality TV colliding with plain old reality—ran directly counter to Top Chef’s messaging and branding. They were, in that, sourly eloquent. Change never comes easily, or simply. It resists distillation into the tropes and narrative arcs that are the foundations of unscripted television. But reality shows are aspirational, too: They can model change, and therefore spur it along. They can broaden assumptions about what chefs—and leaders—look like and act like. They can argue, episode by episode, that everyone is better off when workers are respected and workplaces are fair. The monstrous chef may make good TV; he’ll also make a very bad boss.

The Reality Show That’s Tackling the Toxic Workplace (2024)


What is toxic Behaviour at work? ›

Toxic employees can be identified by their overconfidence, self-centered attitudes, and lack of cooperation. They often disrespect co-workers and prioritize their interests over the team's. Their behavior disrupts team dynamics, lowers morale, and hinders productivity.

How do you outsmart a toxic employee? ›

Things to remember
  1. Foster an environment of open communication.
  2. Give direct feedback to employees.
  3. Enforce consequences for unacceptable behavior.
  4. Separate toxic workers from other team members.
  5. Address underlying issues.
Feb 8, 2023

How do you neutralize toxic coworkers? ›

Dealing With Toxic Colleagues
  1. Learn About Them. ...
  2. Understand What is Going on With Them. ...
  3. Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms. ...
  4. Avoid Engaging with Them Unnecessarily. ...
  5. Try Talking It Out. ...
  6. Talk to Your Superiors About It.
Dec 1, 2021

What are 3 inappropriate behaviors in the workplace? ›

Raising voice during a meeting or acting aggressively when working with other people. Consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs can lead to inappropriate behavior. Inappropriate classroom or meeting behavior, such as yelling, talking over or interrupting others, monopolizing talks, or making unreasonable demands.

Is it OK to quit a toxic work environment? ›

In such instances, resigning from the job can help you explore new opportunities and pathways for personal and professional growth. We find ourselves in a place that does not align with our values and beliefs. A job against your core beliefs can create a sense of conflict and inner turmoil, leading to anxiety.

Who is responsible for a toxic workplace? ›

Individuals at every level of an organization can contribute to workplace toxicity. Toxicity can begin with business leaders, bad managers, or disengaged employees. Often it's all three at once. Just as anyone can create toxicity, anyone can solve the problem too.

Why are toxic employees so hard to fire? ›

Too many companies, especially in a good economy, do not want the bad morale and chatter that follows a termination. As a result, these toxic employees are often moved to a different team in hopes that they will do better. The new manager, in defiance of human nature, wants to give them a fresh chance.

Can you get PTSD from toxic work environment? ›

The impact of workplace trauma can vary from person to person, depending on the nature of the trauma, the individual's coping mechanisms, and their support system. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for employees to experience PTSD due to dealing with terrible bosses or toxic work environments.

Is it worth it to leave a toxic workplace? ›

Furthermore, leaving a toxic workplace can have positive effects on one's career and personal life. It can open up new opportunities for growth and development, and allow individuals to find work that is more aligned with their values, goals, and aspirations.

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