Burdette tosses a hearty, humorous dish at reality television

Topped Chef, by Lucy Burdette. Obsidian. 320 pages. $7.99.

 This is the third in Ms. Burdette’s light and lovely Key West Food Critic Mysteries, following An Appetite for Murder and Death in Four Courses. The author has discovered and mastered the structural benefits of the classic space and time unities. These give the energy of compression to her plots. What better way to confine the spatial scope than to set a story on an island? What better island than the simultaneously familiar and remote Key West – a place where real history and legend combine? What better way to set temporal limits than to focus on an exciting, short-term event?  ToppedChef

In Death in Four Courses, Ms. Burdette explored laughs and deaths at a literary seminar given over to food writers. Now, in Topped Chef, it’s the short-term and on-the-cheap filming of a realty television cooking show. It’s a competition, of course. Not only are the contestants competing, but it seems as if the judges are as well. Though we’ll find out later how she was chosen for the task, intrepid foodie and amateur sleuth Hayley Snow, restaurant critic for “Key Zest” lifestyle magazine, is on the judging panel.  

After Hayley meets her fellow judges and the contestants, the somewhat irritable producer-director, Peter Shapiro, sets things in motion with assistance of Hayley’s acquaintance, the impeccable Deena Smith. A significant number of applicants had already been winnowed to six serious contestants. Now those six, with the judges on hand, would be chopped down to three finalists. The tension builds.

The four judges and three finalists are comprised of strongly individualized characters. Lucy Burdette draws them in broad strokes, allowing readers to sort them out. The judges include Sam Rizzoli, big shot local restaurateur who newest place has been given a negative review by Haley, causing serious friction. The other judges are the thoroughly conceited Chef Adam Boyd; the reserved and hesitant food-writer/memoirist Toby Davidson; and the overly curious motormouth, Hayley herself.

Lucy Burdette

Lucy Burdette

Even more sharply etched are the remaining contestants: flamboyant drag queen Randy Thompson; Buddy Higgs, creator of ingenious dishes based on “molecular gastronomy;” and ethnic combo expert Henrietta Stentzel, with whom Hayley once had a run-in.What’s most fun with this loony crew is Ms. Burdette’s perfect pitch parody of food talk as made familiar on “Chopped” and other popular food programs where judges and competitors try to top each in their descriptions of preparations, styles, successes, and failures.

But wait – this is a murder mystery. . . .

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 1, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 2 Bonita Beach and Charlotte County editions, and the May 9 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Topped Chef

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