What does honor taste like? In its recent season finale, the Bravo television series Top Chef Duels was likely the first to ever ask this question. The ten-episode series concluded this fall by having celebrity chefs Tiffani Faison, Kevin Gillespie, and CJ Jacobson cook an entrée that represents their own interpretation of honor. And the answer lies somewhere amongst Faison’s “lobster gnocchi with corn puree and lobster sauce,” Gillespie’s “wood oven roasted duck with mushrooms and crushed pea pistou,” and Jacobson’s “crispy duck with orange and Manzanita berries.” Leaving one to conclude that honor probably tastes most like duck.
The portrayal of honor on Top Chef Duels reveals a great deal about how this idea is popularly understood in America today. With $100,000 at stake, host Curtis Stone challenges the contestants to “make a three course meal inspired by what duels have been fought over for centuries…Love…Honor…Pride.” Yet again honor is seen through the inherently violent lens of a duel. On the surface, this view seems very much in line with the general public’s negative preconception of honor culture (as discussed in Laurie Johnson’s previous post on “A Definition of Honor?”). But if you peel back the layers of this very stereotypical representation, an opportunity to examine varying definitions of honor still exists. The nuances discussed by the show’s judges and contestants illustrate that honor is very much a diverse concept with many possible interpretations and an openness to ethical understandings of honor.
While the chefs cook, the guest judges engage in a spirited discussion of the Hamilton-Burr Duel of 1804. Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (or at least the famous 1990s “Got Milk?” Aaron Burr commercial) has found a ready audience. But it’s apparent that the public consumption is more historical than comical, as judges Jonathan Waxman and Tom Colicchio are both eager to correctly cite that the duel “took place in New Jersey. Because they couldn’t do it in New York.” Historians everywhere should be proud!
But within this discussion of honor as dueling, we see more nuanced approaches. Virtually all present vehemently agreed that to cheat in a duel afforded one “no honor!” Although, Austrian native Wolfgang Puck chides that if you did “You’re still alive!” Michelle Bernstein reminisces over “physically…defending my husband’s honor” after a patron’s disrespectful words, while her colleague Hugh Acheson considers honor as a matter of “character.”
For the actual honor entrées, the three contestants all interestingly interpret the term (and their dish) as paying tribute to a person or place. Rather than focusing on the violent elements of honor, they take it in a more celebratory context. It shows a ready acceptance of honor as something beyond the trappings of a duel.
Another interesting element of the show is how it separates honor and pride. Contestants interpret honor as being about others, while pride is more personal and about the individual. By framing the ideas in these terms, the chefs seem to show an openness to honor as an idea that is more reflective of society, rather than just the individual. As ethics is also often discussed in terms of society, this offers a possibility for the definition of honor to be more fully expanded into a larger discussion about ethical concepts.
Although this duel of kitchen knives is settled on taste rather than on the dishes’ success at representing honor, the episode sheds new light on this idea within American society and the continued difficulty in defining the term. In this duel Jacobson may have defeated his competitors, but the true victory came in fostering a public debate about honor before an audience of millions.