How a reality show gave me back my title as least popular person in America
When I was asked if I wanted to appear as a judge on Top Chef, an American reality programme, I said ‘yes’ without giving it much thought. The producers assured me it was ‘the highest-rated food reality show on cable’, but that sounded a bit like describing Nuns On the Run as the best cross-dressing comedy about nuns made in the Eighties. Aren’t reality shows ten-a-penny on American television? No doubt my involvement in the programme would go completely unnoticed, just as my appearance on countless British food reality shows has done. (Did anyone see Eating With The Enemy? I didn’t think so.)
I got an inkling of just how wrong I was when I received an email from Euan Rellie, my ex-New York flatmate, the day after my first episode was broadcast last week. Top Chef is a cross between The Apprentice and Masterchef and the episode had depicted me judging an assortment of dishes from nine different ‘cheftestants’ — and deciding, along with my fellow judges, to eliminate two of them. ‘Congratulations,’ wrote Euan. ‘After ten minutes on Top Chef, you are once again the least popular person in the United States. Hamas is getting more favourable NY press coverage than you are.’ I did a quick trawl of the internet and discovered he was right. Far from being just another reality show, Top Chef is a national institution in America, as popular with the chattering classes as Strictly Come Dancing is over here. It has been nominated for three Emmies — the Oscars of American television — and attracts a passionate following among foodies.
‘It is unclear why the producers chose Mr Young whose main claim to fame is f***ing over Graydon Carter, being an EPIC FAIL and who maintains an entirely deserved reputation as a self-serving whiny drunk pissant,’ wrote Joshua David Stein on Gawker, a New York gossip site. ‘My friend Gabe deftly pointed out he is like Simon Cowell without the talent or hair,’ wrote Max Silvestri, a New York comedian. ‘But I think he’s like the lady from The Weakest Link but with a more feminine physique.’ Comments like this — comparing me unfavourably to other British television personalities who’ve crossed the Atlantic — popped up all over the internet, mainly from outraged fans. But the most wounding insults were hurled by American restaurant critics, no doubt furious that they hadn’t been asked to appear on the show themselves. ‘A horror’ was the verdict of Adam Platt, the distinguished food critic of New York magazine, who dismissed me as a ‘bald-headed Londoner’ guilty of delivering ‘forced bon mots’.
Almost all the reviewers — and there were dozens of them — accused me of regurgitating lines I had written down beforehand, irrespective of whether they applied to the dishes or not. For instance, I said of one plate of food, in which the vegetables were much better cooked than the two meat components: ‘It rather reminded me of one of those Hollywood films in which classically trained British actors have been cast in character roles. The two leads were upstaged by the supporting cast.’
Now, I can assure you that I came up with this on the spot — no great shakes, considering it isn’t exactly Wildean in its wit. But one of the penalties of being a well-educated Brit in America is that people are constantly accusing you of having memorised lines for the simple reason that you talk in complete sentences and — completely unheard of, this — you don’t make any grammatical mistakes. ‘A pull-string doll’ was one critic’s verdict.
I’ve been trying to think of ways to cash in on my new-found notoriety, but the best I can come up with is ‘product displacement’. Instead of charging menswear designers to display their clothes on the show, I could threaten to wear them unless they pay me large sums of money. After all, one shot of me in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and food- lovers up and down America will start boycotting the upmarket designer.
Needless to say, the producers of Top Chef have been far from put off by this howl of protest and it looks as though I’ll be cropping up in several more episodes. Earlier this week, an American journalist asked me how I felt about becoming ‘the latest British reality villain’.
‘Dean Acheson said Britain had lost an empire and had yet to find a role,’ I replied. ‘But in fact we have found a role — as villains in American reality shows.’ No doubt I’ll be accused of having rehearsed that line, too.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 17, 2009