The Reality of Life After 'Top Chef': Dream Jobs Are Still Jobs

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A new Bravo show is unusually honest about the challenges of a culinary career.

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Diane Bondareff/AP Images

Remember that great scene in the film Up in the Air, in which George Clooney, professional downsizer, cans J.K. Simmons (a.k.a the dad from Juno) from his nondescript corporate job?

"Your children's admiration important to you?" asks Clooney.

Simmons answers yes.

"Well, I doubt they ever admired you."

Clooney talks about how kids admire athletes because they follow their dreams, and then shames our-soon-to-be-unemployed friend for selling out his own ambitions to secure a modest but steady income for his family.

"Your resume says that you minored in French culinary arts," Clooney continues, "Most students, they work on the fryer at KFC, but you bussed tables at Il Picador to support yourself. Then you get out of college and then you come and you work here." Clooney concludes with a motivational speech about destiny and sends Simmons off to begin a brand-new life—presumably as a chef.

Now observe the current Bravo reality-TV show called Life After Top Chef, in which the cameras document the lives of four Top Chef alumni: Richard Blais, Fabio Viviani, Spike Mendelsohn, and Jen Carroll. Let's consider this piece of cinéma vérité in the light of living out one's vocational dream and ask: Is the nonfictional struggle for culinary success as admirable as Clooney thinks?

Turns out, there are other ingredients involved, such as (1) what one does when one isn't chopping and dicing and straining in the kitchen; and (2) the difficulty of maintaining deep relationships after years of 12-hour work days. Life After Top Chef shows that though the call of a creative career is seductive to those of us in office jobs, those professions come with the same strains on personal life as any other line of work, if not more.

While the culinary world looks pretty glamorous to outsiders, Life After Top Chef reminds us that it is in fact rather grubby. Ten minutes of watching Life After Top Chef will leadto the following conclusion:Working to make a name for yourself in the food biz is long, difficult, sometimes demeaning work. (Watch this chef awkwardly pitch a restaurant idea to Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin! Watch that one get intimidated by the investors when talking about the ingredients on his menu!) This show is about how the process wears down, in various ways, the four folks profiled on LATC.

The Top Chef who suffers the most is Richard Blais, the pointy-featured, Atlanta-based winner of Top Chef All-Stars. Richard gets the largest share of viewer sympathy because his wife Jazmin hassles him about, and he feels guilty about, being insufficiently available for her and their two kids.

But what did they expect? Richard is not just a chef, but one trying to get a brand-new restaurant off the ground. He's consulting, he's flying off to Aspen for the Food & Wine confab, he's a major actor on a new reality show.

In a LATC blog post, Richard says that he and his wife used the show as "a sort of therapy," pointing up his willingness to discuss the difficulty of managing "so many professional projects, as well as my most important job, being a husband and dad. I could have bypassed those issues, instead, waxing about the most amazing parts of my beautiful life, which I do indeed have. But the struggles, I believe, are common for any professional, in any industry, and for any family." Jazmin seems to agree: "Richard and I always talk about how hard it is to be in the industry and have a family. It's a delicate balance," she tells the website Married to a Chef.

And yet, for all these cool off-camera professions of understanding, it's clear that things can get extremely fraught between these two, and that the balance Jazmin describes is not so much delicate as impossible. (Watch this uncomfortable scene, in which Richard gives Jazmin a trip to a handgun range as a gift. He makes some awkward jokes about fearing for his life.)

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Ken Gordon is a freelance writer and the social media manager at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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