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Last winter my fiancee got me to start watching Top Chef, which was my introduction to so-called Reality TV. I confess I really enjoyed it, despite the obviously stagey aspects of the whole thing (and I picked up a few cooking tips in the bargain).

Last night we stumbled onto the finale of a version called Top Chef Masters (as Steve Allen pointed out, imitation is the sincerest form of television), which involved a contest between various well-known chefs. The three finalists were a French guy cooking French food, and Italian-American cooking the food first fed to him by his mother, a native of Calabria, and guy named Rick Bayless whose speciality is the Mexican food he first encountered when visiting Oaxaca as a 14-year-old.

Bayless kept going on about how he saw his mission as introducing Americans to a level of sophistication in Mexican cuisine that is still hard to find in this country. That’s all fine and good, but it struck me that in a country where the actual cooking in high-end restaurants is dominated by Latin Americans in general, and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in particular, the “celebrity chef” doing the Mexican cooking against his French and Italian-American competitors was a very WASPy-seeming fellow. Nothing wrong with that of course — it’s not like you have to be a member of an ethnic group to be a great cook in that genre — but it also reminded me of the point Anthony Bourdain makes in Kitchen Confidential that almost none of the thousands of superbly skilled Mexican and Ecuadorian and Peruvian etc, cooks manning the lines ever seem to end up as head chefs or sous chefs at the fancy places they work, let alone with TV shows on the Food Network.

Update: Just to be clear, I’m not knocking Bayless, who came across on the show as a guy who was eager to educate people about how much great food there is in Mexico, and how sophisticated the various regional cuisines are (Bourdain also makes this point well in Kitchen Confidential).

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