Thoughts from Top Chef: What does it mean to be “Strong?”

January 19, 2012

I think that all of us, whether we realize it or not, like to control other people — at least sometimes.  I’ve seen people unnecessarily criticize friends (without any constructiveness) to make them feel better about themselves, and I’ve seen leaders give followers pointless and difficult tasks because it gives them a thrill watching others listen to them.  Putting others down, asserting our authority over others:  It gives us a power-rush.  It makes us feel strong.  It’s pathetic, but many if not all of us feel the propensity for it at least sometimes.

I began thinking about this when I was watching Top Chef last night.  I recently started following the TV series again after abandoning it after season 5 (Hosea as Top Chef?  Dear God, what a joke).  I became more annoyed than entertained by the personalities and basically didn’t have anyone for whom to cheer.

But a few weeks ago, when I randomly flipped the channel to Top Chef Season 9, I did find someone to cheer for:  Beverly Kim.  Maybe it’s because she’s Korean and I feel Asian solidarity with her and love to see her crank out delicious-looking galbi.  Maybe it’s because I relate to her:  She freely admitted that she is socially awkward and lacks common sense because she’d rather stay in and study than go out while growing up. Or maybe it’s because of her darn cute and funny mannerisms.

But the main reason that I and so many other fans love her is that she brings a whole new definition to what it means to be “strong.”  Many of the other chefs — Sarah, Heather, Lindsay — demonstrate strength by dominating others: bossing other chefs around, unnecessarily insulting teammates, and putting down competition by force of overbearing, egotistical will.  Bluntly put, the other female chefs know how to be loud.  And for some reason, they like to pick on Beverly.

Beverly is a different type of “strong,” though.  She might seem docile:  She’s non-confrontational and non-controlling, and she accepts criticism without complaint (“Beverly, what did I tell youuu?” “Sorry!!”). She’s a top-notch chef, but she’s widely recognized as the underdog.

While other chefs think that “being strong” means outwardly dominating others, Beverly’s “strength” exudes a sort of quiet integrity and confidence in oneself — a strength that can withstand the verbal assaults of others while also refraining from retort. She stands up for herself simply by being better than the competition.  Beverly doesn’t need to put others down; she focuses on herself, does what she does, and does a great job at it.  (Think about the Gospels:  The Pharisees tried to show off their power by “bullying” Jesus, but Christ, ever confident himself, always turned the other cheek and still won the hearts of others.  Which of these would we as Catholics consider demonstrations of true strength?)

That is why so many fans felt for Beverly when she was eliminated in last night’s episode, while other chefs with downright rotten personalities survive.  She was an underdog yes, but she also represented a refreshing contrast to other “strong” chefs who seek to dominate and destroy. Charming and sweet and a little bit ditzy, Beverly demonstrates an inner-strength that wins hearts over; she proves that you can be nice and still rise to the top.

As she seeks to resurrect herself in Last Chance kitchen (she already beat the surging Nyesha), she’s as strong as ever.  Because she should know that the world is cheering for her.