Who the Hell Is Toby Young?
Metromix ran a Q&A the other day with Top Chef guest judge, Toby Young. I'm not surprised that it's a big old softball — Bravo's PR machine doesn't allow any room to criticize or question the network's often inexplicable choices of guest judge (remember when Debra Messing was the final judge on season one of Project Runway? Randomville, USA) — but in all its listing of his UK food-TV resume and favorite has-been NYC restaurants, it completely fails to answer a basic question:
Who the hell is Toby Young?
He's a Writer
Here's what I knew about Toby Young going in: He's British, he's a writer, he's best known for his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a roman a clef based on his time working at Vanity Fair like a decade ago, which I've read (you can read it too, for free) and didn't like very much.
He's an Imitator
People compare How to Lose Friends to Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, and here's my theory: When McInerney basically failed to pull off similarly successful subsequent novels, he became a really excellent wine writer. Toby Young wrote a second book, and I can remember absolutely nothing about it, not even the title, except that some flabby media dudes got in a fight at the launch party. So Toby Young looks around, sees that McInerney pulled off a comeback talking about how shit tastes, realizes that everyone compared him to McInerney, and started asserting that he's a food guy.
He's Kind of a Dick
The reason How to Lose Friends was such a fun read is that the main character is a complete dick. There's a pervasive sense of entitled opinionism and lack of politesse throughout, which is fun until you realize that it applies to the real Toby as much as his quasi-fictional counterpart. It's not really surprising — this is a guy whose father coined the word "meritocracy," for christ's sake — but it is horribly unpleasant.
Or Maybe Just a Jerk
The same unpleasantness shows up throughout the Toby Young oeuvre — for example, when he made an appearance on UK Channel 4's Come Dine With Me, a dinner party reality show in which his inability to not be a jerk basically made all the other contestants hate him. Or his abrasive turn as a judge on the largely-unwatched UK show Eating With the Enemy. Or basically any media appearance at all.
How About a Dickwad?
One of the things I find particularly insidious about Toby is that he's fashioned all this as a persona, painting himself as sort of a Bertie Wooster of the internet age (though while he is bumbling, dismissive, obnoxious, and snooty, he's got none of the Wodehouse charm). I've got a sneaking suspicion that Toby doesn't just playact Oblivious Dickwad — I think it's the real him, and I think he keeps up with it as a matter of personal pride.
This echo chamber of assholery has the additionally infuriating quality of making it incredibly difficult to chronicle my dislike: I run the risk of looking like I'm not in on the joke. But the hook, for me, is the arbitrary "hey, I'm a food guy!" sign tucked in his back pocket. Because hey, Toby, you're not really a food guy. He showed up on three episodes of three separate reality shows, and now he's making his stateside debut on one episode of the fourth and most shark-jumpy season of yet another reality show.
Well, He's Certainly British
In his Metromix interview, he says that he "was probably a little harder on the [Top Chef] contestants than they’re used to, primarily because I’m British." I think he's trying to paint himself as a Simon Cowell figure, speaking the hard truth from a position of authority using a silly accent. Thing is, Simon Cowell had made zillions of dollars being a successful music executive before he got all that American Idol fame. Toby Young, on the other hand, is just a complainy British guy doing pre-publicity for the upcoming movie of his one successful book. Who the hell is Toby Young? Not much of anyone, actually.