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Top Chef, Top Model, and the Secret Ingredient

Last night, I watched Top Chef and America’s Next Top Model back to back. The first won me over like shrimp entrées charming a judge, while the second followed its most woebegone model to teeter off the runway on sharp, spiked heels, and crash into a pool of water.

Really, the shows are so similar that my difference in preference becomes hard to pin down. Both share that predictable reality-show structure of task, elimination, and intimate confession. How is it, then, that Top Chef seems to have found the perfect recipe for churning out intriguing episodes, while Top Model falls flat – literally – with almost the same formula?

It’s the medium, you could say. Fashion appeals to a more select crowd than food. Or perhaps you might decide it’s the contestants – that modeling takes less skill than cooking, and that its subjects make up a more vapid bunch. 

Neither generalization is true. Bravo’s take on fashion, Project Runway, manages to do for clothes what Top Chef does for food and make its field’s pursuit of creative excellence both exciting and heroic. In other words, Bravo’s reality shows make the work of contestants their subject. Work is the secret ingredient, and work is what Top Model misses.

The products of the young women on America’s Next Top Model are a series of brief instants - beautiful, demanding, and photogenic, but gone in a camera flash. The show tries to maximize each episode’s modeling time by cramming three or four tasks into each elimination round, but this only adds extra exposition before contestant’s quick turns on the catwalk.

In Top Chef, on the other hand, you are with them all the way as chefs hustle under constraints that bring them closer to real-time conditions. They control every step of preparation, which makes their product – carefully plated dishes – appear all the more meaningful as the cameras zoom in before judging.

Bravo’s reality shows allow you the time to see contestants progressing and maturing through their work. America’s Next Top Model gives you a snapshot of how great photographs are made – and the sense that modeling is more of an inborn talent than a skill. Either she got it, or she don’t.

Top Model don’t. There is nothing to draw the unfamiliar viewer in.