Cooking as Sport

By Beacon Staff

Here is a list of the cooking competitions currently – or recently – airing on broadcast and cable television, not necessarily in order of quality:

“Iron Chef,” “Iron Chef America,” “Chopped,” “The Chopping Block,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef,” “Last Restaurant Standing,” “Ultimate Recipe Competition,” “Food Network Challenge.” I may have missed some, but there also are countless contests going on from major food manufacturers (like the Pillsbury Bake-off) and food industry trade groups (like the National Beef Council’s recipe contest), as well.

If you’re a cook and you’re competitive, there are plenty of outlets for you to show your stuff.

If you’re a competitive cook and you don’t mind public humiliation, then the realm of reality television cooking shows are at their peak right now, most notably “Hell’s Kitchen” and the insufferable Gordon Ramsay. Now his mentor, Chef Marco Pierre White, takes the softer approach toward abasement on “The Chopping Block.” The back story, in case you didn’t know, is that Chef White trained Chef Ramsay and they were the closest of friends. Something happened in the last several years and now they are the bitterest of rivals. Subtexts apparently have a place in the food world, too.

While Ramsay screams epithet-laced screeds at his mostly incompetent contestants (see my previous column titled “Where Do They Find These People?”), White lets his contestant couples humiliate themselves and then encourages them to talk smack about themselves in front of their competitors and, of course, the television audience.

The venerable BBC has a program called “Last Restaurant Standing.” The premise here is that Raymond Blanc, a Michelin three-starred chef, who owns vacant restaurant properties around London, invites eight couples to compete to be his partner. They must come up with a concept, a menu, and operational plan and through a series of legitimate competitions with amazingly constructive criticism, seven couples are gradually eliminated and their restaurants closed and the last couple gets to go into business with the chef, hence the name, Last Restaurant Standing.

I confess that I do not know the thought process that television programmers use, because this show is very appealing to me, but I can’t imagine why anyone outside the food business would be attracted to this show.

The same holds true for many of the programs on Food Network. Their latest entry in the competition landscape is a show called “Chopped.” Four chefs are pitted against each other; each is given the same four or five mystery ingredients; they are challenged to come up with appetizer, entrée and dessert courses. Three food industry professionals judge their output, “chopping” one chef after each course until only two are left to compete for a $10,000 prize.

A former colleague of mine appeared on “Chopped” and it was her misfortune to be eliminated after the first course. The judges brutalized her, but it all seemed to be on the level because it was professionals critiquing professionals. Hers was a sin of omission. She didn’t get the main protein on the plate in the time allotted. Nonetheless, she’s a good cook, but stuff happens even to the most talented among us.

The classiest of the reality cooking competitions is “Top Chef,” though it does have its seedier elements thrown in because, after all, this is television and how else do you keep your non-foodie audience coming back if: (a) you don’t throw in a little sexual innuendo: (b) designate one competitor as evil personified: or (c) show hidden camera video with bleeped conversations among the competitors?

Its classiness comes from the legitimacy of the competitions, the judges, the venues and the fact that the participants clearly know how to cook and create special dishes.

I’m curious to know what you think of all the food-based competition shows on television these days. Write to me here or post a comment on the web. I know some of the producers of these shows and I’ll share your input with them.