‘Top Chef’ Makes Perfection Impossible. And That’s Exactly What I Needed
Fear of losing control is one of the causes of OCD.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the bok choy. During the day, my mind wandered to the image of it lonely, limp, and cooling on the small metal plate on the Top Chef kitchen counter. At night, when I closed my eyes, my presleep thoughts were consumed by the vegetable. I was obsessed with the bok choy, and it had never even made it onto the final plate.
The plate in question belonged to Top Chef season19 contestant Stephanie Miller. The season’s first Elimination Challenge featured the chefs working in teams of three, with a budget of six hundred dollars and two and half hours of prep and cook time, to create three cohesive dishes that highlighted beef. Stepping outside her meat-and-potatoes comfort zone, Miller chose to make a pasta dish that she hoped would pair well with the other two Asian-influenced dishes her teammates were making. When time ran out and the buzzer sounded, Miller realized she had forgotten to add the braised bok choy to her dish, a seared top round with sweet potato puree, oxtail demi-glace, and crispy shallots. The moment I saw the mistake, I felt my anxiety start to kick in.
“She admitted she forgot the bok choy. That’s a big miss,” said one of the judges after Miller fessed up. She managed to survive this first elimination round and made it until the second episode before she had to hang up her Top Chef coat.
Of course, my bok choy obsession wasn’t about the bok choy at all. It was about the tiny mistake that almost cost Miller the title of Top Chef, a misstep I fixated on for weeks and that I never would have been able to forgive myself for. It was about my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and perfectionism and the damage they were doing to my life by making me constantly fixated on past mistakes, coupled with my fear of making new ones. The bok choy became a symbol of how my drive to do everything right, all the time, was destroying me. See, it really wasn’t about the bok choy at all.
Over the years, I have watched countless people get voted off the island, accept roses, and make it work under Tim Gunn’s wise guidance. I have a favorite real housewife, a favorite Below Deck captain, and at least once a week while applying mascara I fondly remember that infamous scene from The Hills when a single Maybelline Great Lash Blackest Black–stained tear rolled down Lauren Conrad’s cheek as she and her friend/castmate Audrina Patridge tried to salvage their relationship. My reality-television obsession had always provided a welcome mental break, mindless viewing to turn my brain off at the end of the day or a way to avoid my to-do list on a Saturday afternoon.
The bok choy became a symbol of how my drive to do everything right, all the time, was destroying me.
Throughout Top Chef’s nineteen seasons, I was a casual viewer. In the Emmy Award–winning Bravo reality show, chefs compete to win a six-figure cash prize, a feature in Food and Wine magazine, some sort of fancy Aspen food showcase, and the respect of host Padma Lakshmi. I watched the show’s early seasons but usually bailed before the finale when some new reality show about the daily lives of Hollywood fashion stylists or million-dollar real estate agents caught my eye. But during the summer of 2021, my relationship with the show changed. Late one night, bored and looking for something to watch, I randomly started the season that begins with Miller’s bok choy fail. I assumed I would watch a few episodes and then move on, as I had in the past. I never could have predicted how the show would make me confront and question my relationship with perfectionism.
Each season of Top Chef takes place in a different US city, and the locations often inform the nature of the dishes and tasks. Each episode begins with a Quickfire Challenge, with the winning chefs earning immunity from elimination, bragging rights, or a prize. The contestants then compete in an Elimination Challenge, which often includes the chefs working in teams to complete a more complex task like catering a wedding, cooking a dinner using only camping equipment, or launching a food truck.
After binging the season in a few days, I decided to start Top Chef from the beginning. I was midway through season 5, right around the breakfast amuse-bouche Quickfire Challenge, when I started to think about how the show’s contestants handled mistakes and navigated unpredictability––and how their approach differed so much from my own.
The show was a roller coaster. Chefs could win the episode’s Quickfire Challenge but then be on the bottom and sent home after the Elimination Challenge. One week a chef could execute a perfect dish the judges raved about but in the next episode be shamed by guest judge Anthony Bourdain for using frozen scallops. I knew I never would have been able to compete. I would have pressured myself to win every challenge and punished myself for every mistake.
For most of my life, I have had checking OCD, which is a common form of OCD. As a checker, I worry about whether my stove is off, my apartment door is locked, and if I turned all the taps off before I left for work. My mind can’t stop thinking about all the terrible things that could happen, from someone breaking into my apartment and stealing all my stuff to a stove-related fire that destroys my entire building. To ease these worries, I spend hours of my day checking locks, the stove, and taps. I have a checking routine before I leave my house that averages about an hour, on a good day, and a photo album on my phone full of pictures of stove knobs in the off position in case I panic later. I also have perfectionism OCD, which is related to the checking behavior and which demands everything be perfect, everything be done right, and everything be in its proper place. Perfectionism OCD also involves both a fear of making new mistakes and a preoccupation with past ones. Tasks that should take no time to complete can consume hours, not only because they need to be done perfectly but also because my brain is constantly casting doubt on how I’m doing them.
My full-time job as a publisher for a small, independent magazine involves a lot of math, and my perfectionism means those numbers are checked, double-checked, and triple-checked, even if I used a calculator. Pre–Top Chef, the first draft of this story would have been filed as “TopChef-firstdraft.doc,” when it was actually draft six or seven. Being able to crank out a first draft in a few hours just didn’t exist in my world. Last month, I could feel my perfectionism getting bad while fact-checking a magazine piece. The story should have taken a day to check, but I started to doubt every source and triple-check every fact, before spiraling into a days-long bout of self-doubt and anxiety that convinced me I was a fact-checking failure. To stop the spiral, I turned to my old friend Top Chef.
The quick pace of a reality show like Top Chef makes perfection impossible. When you have ten minutes to create a perfect omelet to impress a judge, there’s isn’t time to think too much about it, to second-guess your decisions, or to redo the dish. If I were a contestant, I doubted I would even make it through the first Quickfire. At the end of ten minutes, Lakshmi would find me standing in front of the pantry unable to decide what to put in my omelet, after having already selected several ingredients but then having vetoed them when I started to doubt myself. By the time the judges got to try my omelet, hours would have passed. I would be too exhausted from trying to achieve perfection to hear head judge Tom Colicchio’s comments from the floor of the Monogram kitchen, where I would be curled up either crying or taking a nap.
Needing to achieve perfection all the time is exhausting. It’s not just the time it takes to repeatedly check your work or proofread every email you draft twenty-six times before sending—it’s the fear of a mistake constantly lurking around every corner. It’s the weight of always carrying all your previous mistakes around with you. Of trying to find room in your brain to obsess about how you never mastered Venn diagrams in high school or how you got fired from that job two decades ago for having messy handwriting and then practiced cursive for weeks before your first day at the new job that followed. Or obsessing about that grant you weren’t awarded because you’re a big grant-writing failure and your project description sucked and you will never be successful as a writer. No matter how many times your friends remind you of the extremely competitive process and tiny funder budget, you will always think you didn’t get it because of something you did wrong. Convincing myself I’m not a failure is all-consuming and, prior to season 19 entering my life, was making things feel harder than Top Chef’s popular mise en place relay race that sees contestants having to shuck a whole bunch of clams or mince a tonne of garlic.
The quick pace of a reality show like Top Chef makes perfection impossible.
The more episodes I watched, the more imperfect dishes I saw go before the judges. These dishes not only won contestants immunity, $10,000 checks, trips to Italy, and new cars; they also helped me to see that imperfection doesn’t always mean failure. Succeeding at every challenge is both unattainable and unrealistic. Sometimes, you just have to get the food on the plate.
I decided to embrace this approach in my own life. I didn’t have to do everything perfectly all the time––sometimes I just needed to get it done. I wrote “just get the food on the plate” on Post-it Notes for my computer at the office, my laptop at home, and my bathroom mirror. I repeated the line to myself before I started a task and whenever my perfectionism started to sneak in.
Sometimes I plated the food nicely, and sometimes it resembled a messy dessert that would get a contestant sent packing, but I embraced the inconsistency. It felt freeing, and I even started to get more done. Procrastination had become a way of managing my perfectionism. If I never started something, I couldn’t fail. But that type of attitude would never work on Top Chef, which helped me recognize how it was controlling my life and stopping me from accomplishing goals.
Top Chef contestants hate timers, but they soon became a lifesaver for me. The show inspired me to try one, and soon I couldn’t imagine completing tasks without a ticking clock beside me. I allocated a certain amount of time to each task, and when the time was up, the task was done. I imagined Lakshmi standing beside me saying her famous “hand’s up, utensils down” line when the buzzer went off. Like my own personal Quickfire, I couldn’t redo or double-check things. Sometimes things weren’t done as well as they would have been if I didn’t have the timer, but it allowed me to focus on the act of doing rather than the result.
I was also helped by how little time the show provides for contestants to dwell on their mistakes. Watching contestants pack their knives and go because they accidentally used too much salt or overcooked the fish initially caused me so much anxiety. But the contestants don’t dwell on it: “There’s only so much you can kick yourself in the ass for what you’ve done,” contestant Tiffani Faison said on the show’s first season. Faison made it all the way to the season finale before losing to Harold Dieterle. If eliminated chefs can go on to launch successful restaurants, write best-selling cookbooks, and beat Bobby Flay, then I could survive a misstep too.
Fear of losing control is one of the causes of OCD. Checking my stove or triple-checking math helps me feel in control. It helps to quiet my brain, which always seems to go immediately to the worst-case scenario. But spending hours watching chefs navigate situations they couldn’t anticipate or control helped me identify those situations in my own life. On Top Chef, you can’t control the knives you pick, the teams you’re on, the time you’re given, or the budget you can spend. You might end up cooking with one hand tied behind your back, be forced to use an ingredient you’re unfamiliar with, or be prohibited from using utensils. Or you might have to make a soufflé. No one ever wants to make a soufflé on Top Chef. But the chefs adapt, they get creative, and they embrace things that are outside of their comfort zones. I thought perfection was my comfort zone, but Top Chef helped me see that I was anything but comfortable.
Top Chef is currently filming its twentieth season in London and will feature all-stars from the various international versions of the show. I am excited to welcome Lakshmi and the chefs back into my life. Until then, I rewatch old episodes of the show at least once a week. I am currently revisiting season 18 in Portland. While my perfectionism will always be there, my year of Top Chef helped me moderate it. If I were a contestant now, I could make an omelet in ten minutes. It might not be the best omelet, but that wouldn’t bother me as much as it once would have. I’ve learned to cut myself some slack and move on to the next challenge. And I never think about the bok choy anymore.
Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go's, to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Vehicule Press in Fall 2023.