"Top Chef" comes to Boston this season, and it's wicked pissah, because chowdah and Fenway and Pilgrims! These things might finally get the exposure they deserve beyond Beantown, as we call it here never.
When putting this city on the screen, it is easy to resort to cliches. Indeed, the promotional copy for Season 12 of the Bravo cooking competition references the predictable — the B-word, "Cheers," the Green Monster. Early footage previews a challenge involving Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation and uses the word "historic" like it's going out of style. But it also refers to today's Boston, the one with the "flourishing culinary scene," and promises appearances from chefs like Jamie Bissonnette, Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, Jacques Pepin, and Ming Tsai, as well as renowned culinary sage Robert James Gronkowski.
The premiere episode shows Lynch nervously feeding judges at an invite-only food festival at the Museum of Science (and making salty comments in promos — when is she going to get her own reality show?). Past local "Top Chef" contestants Tiffani Faison (runner-up, Season 1 and the recently ended "Top Chef Duels") and Kristen Kish (winner, Season 10) bond with current competitor Stacy Cogswell, executive chef of the Regal Beagle in Brookline. ("You're the only one from Boston?" Eye roll.) And early on, a sudden death Quickfire challenge requires contestants to break down sparkling local seafood. ("Come on, Boston!" the rest of her team exhorts Cogswell, who barely breaks a sweat.)
This is the Boston we should see when "Top Chef" premieres Wednesday, the one that makes the city worth showcasing on a food show in the first place, above and beyond the financial incentives and in-kind arrangements it is able to provide. (Bravo partnered with the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau for the season. The details of the arrangement are swaddled in nondisclosure agreements, but CEO and president Patrick B. Moscaritolo spoke with counterparts in past "Top Chef" cities and said: "I know what they had to raise to be on the show, and our partnership was much more heavily structured on the in-kind services than it was on any kind of financial contribution. That's about all I'm really allowed to say. It was a great business deal for Boston and our visitor industry.")
It's been a long time since this was "the home of the bean and the cod," as the John Collins Bossidy poem had it, unless the beans are heirloom and paired with cod that has been caught with a hand line in a location where the population is sufficiently robust. And the judges know it.
We are the home of topnotch chefs, many of whom appear on the show hobnobbing like old friends with Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi. Our culinary community collaborates more than it competes, helps shape the national conversation about restaurants and food, travels voraciously and brings home new flavors and ideas, modernizes and reinterprets the region's traditional fare, and works to make the city and the world a better place through charitable doings: Chefs in Shorts, Taste of the Nation, and the upcoming Lovin' Spoonfuls Ultimate Tailgate Party, to name just a few.
We are the home of highest education (no, I'm not referring to the underground, marijuana-themed pop-ups discreetly taking place). Harvard draws leading culinary figures from around the world to explore the intersection of science and cooking in its groundbreaking lecture series.
We are the home of sustainability. Chefs care about the future of the food supply and spend thoughtful hours working to make the plentiful delicious, to help shift consumers' tastes and awareness in a direction that treats resources with responsibility and respect.
We are the home of neighborhoods. The fabric of the city is made from a patchwork of squares, each with its own culture and character. In terms of food, this means everything from Irish pub fare to Vietnamese pho to Salvadoran pupusas to Haitian griot to Italian pizza pies. If the show can go to Fenway Park, Plimoth Plantation, and Cheers, it might also visit East Boston and Allston, the food trucks, the pop-ups.
(We might also be the home of the most fraught relationship in history between the Teamsters and the entertainment industry. This time around, charges surfaced that union members harassed "Top Chef" crew and cast members during filming. The Teamsters have denied the allegations; they declined to comment for this story, as did Bravo.)
The people who help hone the city's image are savvy to all of this and aware of its value. Moscaritolo referenced a 2013 report by Mandala Research titled "The American Culinary Traveler," which identified a market of more than 39 million leisure travelers who focus on dining and food-related activities when they take trips. Although he said history and culture will always be meat and potatoes for Boston tourism, he wants to see the city on culinary travelers' must-visit lists, too.
That's one big reason Boston courted "Top Chef" for Season 10 in 2012, when a memorable campaign from marketing agency Digitas got fans of the show (and people like then-mayor Tom Menino) to promote the destination with the Twitter hashtag #yougottatryboston.
Bravo didn't gotta. The show went to Seattle (where Boston's Kish won, so take that).
Even 12 seasons in, the Emmy-winning show remains the preeminent cooking competition on television. But what does it really mean to have "Top Chef" in your city? A look westward might be enlightening.
"People were excited that the show was coming, but in the end it was surprisingly light on a real Seattle feel," observed Rebekah Denn, who writes about food for the Seattle Times and covered "Top Chef" when it was in town. Several episodes took place in Alaska, and the finale in LA, she pointed out. And although a few Seattle chefs made guest appearances, the show also flew in experts from far afield. "After a while, we started referring to it as 'the show that is still technically known as "Top Chef: Seattle." ' "
She doubts Seattle saw much of a return on its investment. There are no hard data available to quantify the impact of "Top Chef" on host cities. But the finale of Season 11, set in New Orleans, drew 1.7 million viewers. That's a lot of eyeballs.
Let's hope that when they tune in to Season 12, they see the fine and forward-looking food city Boston has become, not just the historic and hidebound one. If not, we'll always have chowdah.