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The CIA finally jumped on the cooking-themed reality TV propaganda bandwagon in 2010 when they hosted an episode of Top Chef. This week we take a look at the episode in question, how it flattered the CIA, and how Top Chef has involved numerous government agencies and departments. We round off looking at some of the reasons why cooking programmes make for effective propaganda.


Yes, you heard that right, I am going to be devoting an episode to the CIA’s appearance on an episode of Top Chef. I know some of you might consider this a little low brow but frankly, it’s Christmas, I don’t have the time for a fully researched episode and I thought this would be fun.

Full disclosure: I have never seen Top Chef before. I do not watch so-called reality TV because aside from longer-form dramas and a bit of sport I don’t watch TV. I watch a lot of films and in truth I do watch a lot of TV dramas like Mr Robot, Homeland, Fargo, Billions and so on. They provide me with more than enough entertainment, I don’t need to watch mediocre singers being told they’re world class, or people being challenged to eat more or eat less or people pretending to get married.

Despite my contempt for ‘reality shows’ I thought that since I try to be as comprehensive as possible that I should actually watch this episode of Top Chef. And before you ask, yes, it is absolutely as bad as you might think. It’s basically a montage of people frantically cooking, interrupted with talking head interviews with the contestants slagging each other off and regurgitating hype that has clearly been fed to them by the producers. There is also quite a lot of black Americans conforming to reality TV stereotyping of over-expression, there’s lot of ‘got-dayyum’ and ‘aww hell no’ and ‘I cayn beleeeee dat’ and so on. Again, the producers pick people who either behave like this or can be coaxed into behaving like this.

Indeed, given the deceptions at the heart of ‘reality TV’ it is kinda surprising the CIA had never done this before. We talked in the CIA and Hollywood episode on Chuck Barris about whether Barris actually did work for the CIA not as an assassin, but as a TV producer. In many respects Barris invented what we now call reality TV because his game shows weren’t really about winning so much as becoming famous, or at least notorious. Perhaps the most famous example is when one of the contestants was asked ‘where is the weirdest place you’ve ever had sex?’ and after a long, uncertain pause she responds ‘in the ass?’. This is what made Chuck Barris’ programmes attention grabbing and memorable, the whole competitive element is secondary, merely a framework around which to introduce the public to a version of themselves. Instead of the draw being a star who would conform to our expectations of a star, the attraction is to the ordinary people who are unpredictable.

The CIA and Top Chef challenge

 So, while the Pentagon seem to be obsessed with using reality TV to promote themselves and their agendas, and other institutions like the Department of Homeland Security also quite regularly appear in some form in these programmes, the CIA have been a bit late to the party. So we’re going to step down into the fourth circle of hell that is reality TV and go for a taste of Top Chef. The episode in question is from 2010 and is called Covert Cuisine. Essentially, the contestants were each given a ‘classic dish’ which they had to try to disguise and then serve to the CIA at Langley. And yes, it’s absolutely as dumb and ridiculous as that sounds.

First up, I had never heard of half of these ‘classic dishes’ because I’m a culinary philistine, and one of the contestants didn’t actually know what the ingredients were for the thing she was supposed to be cooking. Also, the challenge didn’t really make sense. If you have a specific set of ingredients for a specific dish then how do you make something else, without just mashing them together and roasting it? It seems that half of the contestants didn’t really understand what they were supposed to do or how the challenge worked.

So I’m guessing this is something they dreamed up specifically to flatter the CIA, or possibly even something the CIA’s entertainment liaison office came up with. It didn’t really work as an idea and when they went to Langley and actually cooked and served the food they didn’t play up to it. I was expecting a run down of each dish and how it had been disguised. You could use a few close up black and white photographs to make them look like surveillance photos, have text on screen explaining what the ingredients are, the original dish and how it’s now a lasagna in disguise as steak tartare or whatever. That would have made for a fun little sequence so it would introduce each dish before we then got to see the judges and the spies try to figure out what it was. But they didn’t do that. They went for a sub plot about one of them panicking because she was overcooking the rice.

 Top Chef goes to Langley

So let’s watch or listen to a couple of sections from Top Chef: Covert Cuisine where they explain the challenge to them, we hear the contestants react, and then another bit from when they arrive at Langley.

(12:51 – 14:40 and 20:30 – 21:50)

So, just to draw out the obvious, these are ordinary people being inducted – very briefly and in a trivial way – into the secret world of the CIA. Willing fools and so on. And they’re all ‘OMG, we’re so privileged’ and ‘like, how cool is the CIA?’ about it. So that’s rather simple from a propaganda point of view – the contestants are a vehicle for us, the audience, to be inducted into the CIA’s desired public view of themselves. In return, the programme gets added production value to inject a bit of originality into a very tired and repetitive format. They’re doing the same thing they do every week, but in a new location.

After a bit more frantic cooking and nonsense we get to the sequence where the CIA agents and the judges eat the disguised food and try to figure out what it is. This is where things get a little more subtle in propaganda terms so I’ll play you a longer clip so you can see how this all came together.

(24:30 – 34:00)

So there are a lot of bad jokes in there that people politely laughed at and the whole thing is kind of jolly and daft so the unassuming viewer might not realise what they’re being told. The critical moment comes when then CIA director Leon Panetta is interrupted by a waiter with a slip of paper. Panetta reads it under the table, makes his excuses and leaves.

Now, there are three ways of looking at this:

– First, this was authentic – Panetta really was called away on some important business. But the director of the CIA isn’t usually involved in anything urgent. He’s a political appointee, increasingly so as time goes on, he’s not running live operations. So I find that unconvincing, though possible.

– Second, Panetta actually hated having to do this and arranged beforehand for a flunky to give him an excuse to get out of it halfway through. The presenter of the show is a bit of a disaster area – she has one of those faces that’s had so much plastic surgery and botox that she can’t actually pull any expressions any more. So if Panetta did consider himself above all this, I can’t really blame him.

– Third, that this was staged both to add a little spice to proceedings and to emphasise how important people like Panetta are compared to the plebs watching the show. It helps maintain this sense that Panetta and the CIA are coming down to our level, they’re playing along with us for a bit of fun but when duty calls they’ve got more important stuff to do, and we haven’t.

Naturally, I’ll leave you to decide which of these you think is the most plausible interpretation. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that the CIA would not allow a reality TV cooking competition into their headquarters without getting a little something in return in terms of manipulating the content of the programme.

I will point out that this was not the only episode of season 7 of Top Chef that involved the government or politics. Episode 3 was called Capitol Grill, where they had to ‘prepare a classic picnic feast for Capitol Hill interns at Mount Vernon, the home of the first U.S. president, George Washington.’ Episode 6 was called Cold War, where ‘The chefs battle it out in a culinary version of the Cold War. The chef’testants are divided into two groups and each team must create one cold entrée.’ Episode 8 was called Foreign Affairs and ‘The chefs must cook exotic Ethiopian cuisine for the quickfire, and for the elimination are tasked with creating a dish based on one of the foreign embassies in D.C. Chefs, ambassadors and dignitaries representing each country join in the judging.’ There were other episodes based around the House of Representatives and NASA. The US Army and Marine Corps have also been involved in this series.

So why Top Chef?

 Honestly, I don’t know. There is no real indication from any of the available documents why so many branches and agencies of the government are so into using reality TV cookery programmes as a means for propaganda. So we can only speculate, but I’ll take an educated guess and throw you a few ideas.

1) Cookery shows of all kinds are watched by women more than by men. Women are harder to reach through the usual methods because sports, action movies, spy films are a lot more popular among male audiences than female audiences. Likewise, women are less interested in on screen violence than men. Not exclusively and entirely, but as a general rule of thumb. A film like Lone Survivor probably wouldn’t attract a lot of women, and those that it did attract would be more impressed by the emotional content, the braveness and determination of the surviving soldier rather than the extensive scenes of them shooting brown people. But something like Top Chef is much more likely to appeal to conventional feminine sensibilities and thus the propaganda reaches a target audience that’s otherwise a bit elusive for the security state.

2) People like food. Across all demographics, people like food, for obvious reasons. People like looking at food on TV. While some of the entries in the military entertainment liaison office reports do cite specific audience demographic data, cookery shows reach all kinds of different people. Since these aren’t really recruitment tools but are more general propaganda, they’re effective from that point of view.

3) The desire for food is a natural instinct, a necessary instinct. Watching food shows does one thing, guaranteed – it makes people hungry. When people are hungry they feel a little insecure. There’s nothing that provokes unrest and revolutions more than a starving population. So hunger makes people willing to fight, or at least to see other people fight on their behalf. This might sound absurd, but I genuinely think that when people are hungry they’re more psychologically vulnerable, they feel less secure. As such, messages telling them who is providing them with security are more likely to hit home when they’re hungry.

I am sure there are other reasons, such as the sheer prevalance of this sort of TV programming making it statistically more likely that so many government departments would work with them. But while I can see an obvious motive in the security services being involved in programmes that glorify surveillance and secrecy and deception, I can see some motives in them getting involved in this sort of show. Naturally, if you can think of any other possible reasons for this noticeable trend of the government involving themselves in food and cookery programmes then let me know.

And on that note I think we will wrap up this salad and call it lunch.