Should ‘Top Chef’ contestant Jackson have revealed he lost his sense of taste due to COVID?

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I had reached the final round of the academic interview, a multi-step progression that takes months, for a coveted tenure-track teaching position. Unfortunately, this series of interviews was a big group dinner in a loud, crowded bar, and I’m half deaf. It’s not something I divulged during my interview (college professors, none of whom were themselves disabled, had strongly advised me to keep quiet) but now the President from the hiring committee sat me down under a screaming loudspeaker.

Quickly and clearly, I revealed my disability, asking if I could sit on the other side of the table to hear the group better.

The chair made a face. I didn’t get the job – who knows why? academia is a festering trash fire – but I’ll always link that night’s disclosure to someone making a distasteful expression. Disability disclosure, especially the disclosure of information for the purposes of reasonable accommodation, is an important personal decision. It can also have unpredictable consequences, especially at work.

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This season’s “Top Chef” set in Houston features contestant Jackson Kalb, a Los Angeles-based chef who had lost much of his sense of taste and smell after surviving COVID, contracting a case which he described as “benignjust weeks before filming began. After reaching the final eight, fan-favorite Kalb was eliminated following the show’s popular Restaurant Wars, where contestants design and execute a restaurant concept for the judges and for the guests.

jackson had revealed to the producers of “Top Chef” his loss of smell and taste, but not only did they do not ban him from continuing in the competition, they kept him a surprise.

Long COVID is defined by the World Health Organization as a condition occurring in individuals “usually 3 months after the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms that last at least 2 months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis. One of the possible symptoms of long term COVID-19 is a loss or change in smell or taste. Foods may taste bland, salty, metallic, smell nothing, or smell bad. disabled. A friend with Long COVID described a constant charred or burnt smell and taste while another said certain foods now tasted too greasy to even try.

Long COVID is classified like a handicap under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some researchers believe the condition is more likely to happen after a relatively mild to moderate first case of COVID, as described by Kalb, and although differences or absence of taste or smell are some of the main symptoms, they are certainly not the only oneswhich can also include fatigue, brain fog, cognitive impairment, difficulty breathing, and heart changes.

Evelyn Garcia, Luke Kolpin, Jackson Kalb and Jae Jung in “Top Chef: Houston” (Photo courtesy of David Moir/Bravo)Jackson hadn’t told his fellow chefs he had lost his sense of taste and smell, fearing it would be seen as a ‘weakness’ in the competitive cooking competition and others might take advantage of him. . But Jackson made up for the loss by placing in the top three and even as the winner of multiple challenges. He said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times“I would try my food and often cover my ears and close my eyes, and try to piece together what I think it would taste like as I chewed. I relied entirely on the texture.”

Before he was eliminated, he looked like he had a good chance of going all the way and maybe even winning the title. “I guess my instincts were better than I thought, just for seasoning purposes,” he said. People.

jackson had revealed to the producers of “Top Chef” before the start of filming his loss of smell and taste, but not only do not banning him from continuing in the competition, they kept him a surprise from the others, perhaps thinking his secret handicap made for exciting television. “At the end of the day, they are make a tv show,” he said.

It smacks of “CODA” vibes, when the plot is at the expense of people with disabilities and for the benefit of non-disabled audiences – and that didn’t sit well with the fans.

It was relatively difficult for viewers to know whether or not Jackosn revealed to his fellow contestants, until what would be his final episode (this made my “Top Chef” fanatic family instantly suspicious; you know when a episode unduly focuses on a leader, their number is on the rise). Some fans expressed anger or annoyance that Jackson hid his disability.

Perhaps the small group challenges may have been a chance for Jackson to disclose to the other leaders, but disclosing a disability, even like Long COVID, is an individual decision. And it’s complicated. Yes, people with disabilities are protected by the ADA. In theory. But just because something like job discrimination or being passed over for a job or promotion because of a disability is illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. All the time.

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research with composite job applicants found that applicants who disclosed a disability “received 26% fewer employer expressions of interest than those without a disability”. All candidates were experienced; disability was the only different factor, “indicating that higher qualifications do not erase the labor market disability-related disadvantages.” A similar study in France found just 2% of real applicants who disclosed a disability received interest in their job applications.

As Lizz Schumer writes in the New York Times, “the gap between the letter and the application of the law can swallow people whole“, giving example after example of discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace and writing:” All these stories are horrible. Many are technically illegal. None are particularly unique.”

Fellow countryman Luke Kolpin was shown turning against Jackson as he revealed his Long COVID. Luke assumed he would be sent home and accused Jackson of calling his dish too salty (the judges then thought it was under-seasoned). Can you blame Jackson for hesitating to disclose?

What could the 23 million potential Americans with Long COVID learn from the chef who couldn’t taste?

Luke did do not come home, and Jackson was do not The only one to believe the dish too salty. But “Top Chef” has been edited to place the blame squarely on Jackson, the faulty taster, and Jackson alone. Not only is it dishonest, it’s ableist.

To be clear, Jackson wasn’t sent home because of Luke’s dish – which was ultimately his own responsibility to spice up – rather all of the other bad decisions Jackson made during Restaurant Wars, including the decision to send two dishes at a time, the scribbled by hand. “Welcome Judges” sign, a dismal performance in front of the house and a rather uninspired dessert.

With reality shows, it’s always hard to know what’s really going on, thanks to the magic of TV editing and rotation. Either way, “Top Chef” missed a great opportunity to talk openly about Long COVID, let alone shine a light on what made Jackson’s cooking so successful without relying on taste and smell – touch, memory of the senses, innovation, proven recipes?

What other senses are involved in making food? What could be the potential 23 million Americans with Long COVID learn from the chef who couldn’t taste?

Long before COVID, superstar chef Grant Achatz of Alinea lost his sense of taste to tongue cancer. An entire episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” is dedicated to him, his restaurant and his journey. He still thrives on the job, and his story could have played a role in Jackson’s storyline on the show.


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Although his time on “Top Chef” is over, and Jackson reports that his sense of smell and taste has now almost completely returned, as he said, “No matter what happens, it’s not the result of that specific show that matters, that’s what you do after.”

“Top Chef: Houston” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Bravo.

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