Monday, 31 December 2012

"Jalapeno Business": Top Chef Takes on Derby

The tenth season of the cooking competition reality show "Top Chef" recently featured an episode called "Jalapeno Business" in which the cheftestants attend a Rat City bout (with Rose City) and create dishes based on derby names from the Rat City Rollergirls. Featured skaters were Missile America (given, for some reason, the name "Teriyaki Terrror", but more on that later), Kutta Betch (as "Kutta Rump"), Tempura Tantrum and Eddie Shredder. Cooking, product placement, and drama ensues.

The episode receives a mixed score in terms of roller derby representation. I have to give the producers big ups for featuring the skaters in track jackets, looking professional and fierce. I worried that the players would be clumsily sexed up or objectified. Instead, the producers chose to go the "tough derby" route of representation. The skaters introduce themselves by punning on their names using lines like "I'm Teriyaki Terror and I tear girls up." Judge Emeril Lagasse describes the skaters as "bold and brash" and instructs the chefs to cook appropriately, but "bring a helmet" to the game. A contestant describes the sport as "a really crazy, violent version of the Icecapades". All in all, pretty typical stuff. Derby is violent. Derby girls are tough. Rrawr. In this respect, the show relies on the sport to reflect a sense of cutthroat competition and high-stakes.

They also use the cheftestants going to a bout for colour and some footage of what appears to be a pretty drunk castmember. Appropriately, drama follows, but sadly none of the derby variety.

 A charming  interlude features Padma Lakshmi, the show's host, showing off her skating skills and being named "Padma Smacks-Me". The scene features a colour shift and effects reminiscent of an 70s' rollerdisco film, complete with retro font. This association of derby with the rollerdisco of the seventies is a common mistake, but it's not so aggravating as the obviously missed opportunity to coin the name "Padma Lash-Me" (you saw it here first).

Less ambivalent props are due to the show for showing the Seattle Derby Brats logo, as well as the WFTDA logo and bout footage. To a producer, shots like these are useful filler, but to a derby fan or a Rat City player watching and saying "Hey, that's totally my butt!" these recognizable images are meaningful and fun. It's also good publicity for both Rat City and the sport in general.

Where I found myself disappointed was seeing the skaters misrepresented. Missile America and Kutta Betch both had their names changed, presumably to avoid the potential issues of having names that bring to mind violence or colourful language as well as more directly guide the dishes being made. In the first case, though the 'appropriateness' of derby names is an ongoing discussion, the sport is not known for its delicacy. Why choose to feature players whose names you'll have to 'change' for broadcast?

The players featured are described as being All-Star members, but according to Rat City's site, that roster changes frequently, which may explain why Tantrum and Shredder (awesome though they are) aren't currently on the roster. I don't know if they were part of the All-Stars at the time of filming, but why not just describe them as Rat City players and eliminate the extra chance to misrepresent the league? Other players certainly could have been chosen to avoid indelicate language and hit particular food associations - Rat City has Punk'n Pie, Slamburger Patty, and Raspberry Slam, to name just a few. Missile and Kutta both have names they're right to be proud of and Bravo's cavalier willingness to change their names shows, at its base,  a misunderstanding of the sport.

Obviously, I can't claim to speak for Rat City and its players. Taking part in the episode provides useful publicity and helps the sport reach out to prospective fans, players and officials. I think their choice to be involved was a wise one and further proves the ability of Rat City and its players to act as excellent (and, er, quitequiteattractive) ambassadors for the sport.

I just hope that the Bravo Network's next trip to the rink treats Rat City and their sport the way they deserve.