Top chef is a bravo reality show that has America’s most promising chefs competing in entertaining challenges. In the March 19th episode, competitors drew straws to see what they’d be cooking. In true top chef style, these “straws” took the form of butcher knives that contestants pulled from a butcher’s block. Each knife had an ingredient written in large letters on its blade. The first ingredient, vulture, sent the chefs into a tizzy. What can you do with vulture meat? The second knife, bear, seemed slightly more accessible, but was still a delicacy that most chefs did not have experience with. The third knife, lion, elicited confused reactions from the chefs. When the fourth knife was drawn, gorilla, one chef noted that she knew you can’t eat gorilla — and she was right. The chefs would not be cooking the meat of each animal, but rather creating a menu that was inspired by each animal’s diet. The Top Chef contestants would be catering an event for the Chicago zoo, and each team created a menu based on the diet of one of the four animals.
What was notable in this segment was the glaring distinction between edible and non-edible animals. Top Chef is a show that enjoys challenging its contestants to cook unusual meats. Not much is off limits in their kitchen, so introducing lion and gorilla in a realm where these ‘meats’ could conceivably be included, highlighted the artificial distinctions we create around animals. It forced the audience and the contestants to wonder why these animals are not ingredients the way other animals are. It was a wonderful example of human-animal studies in action — a practical application of how to draw people into dialogue about what they classify as food, and why. It lasted only a moment, and the reflection among contestants was superficial at best. But there was tremendous potential for further exploration of the topic. These moments are a gold mine for human-animal studies scholars to take advantage of conversation generated by those outside of the field.
Further still, I’m sure that anyone even remotely aware of the plight of wild gorillas could not help but think of the devastating effects of the bushmeat trade. Certainly the site of a knife with the word gorilla on it could bring little else to mind, especially in the context of a kitchen. Top Chef missed an opportunity to expose this intolerable practice to a wide audience. In fact, given their use of imagery, it was irresponsible not to point out that gorilla meat is a delicacy in some areas of the world, and that gorilla populations are suffering because of it. By introducing audiences to the concept of gorillas as food (even if the chefs did not ultimately use them as such,) Top Chef had a responsibility to explain that the slaughter of gorillas does in fact happen, is routinely done so, and is illegal.
Ironically, the group that was supposed to create a menu based on the gorilla diet was incapable of creating vegetarian dishes. (Gorillas are, after all, primarily vegetarians.) Instead, the team incorporated fish and crab into the menu, an inconsistency that was pointed out by a zookeeper who attended the event. The judges, however, did not seem troubled by the group’s inability to follow this simple guideline. Though the gorilla team ultimately lost the challenge, it was because the food wasn’t good, not because they couldn’t follow the gorilla diet.