There are two things you should know about me: I am hooked on reality television, and I love to cook. So, it stands to reason that reality TV shows about cooking would be right up my alley. Sure enough, that’s exactly the case. There are a good half-dozen shows about cooking or food that I consider Must-See TV.
The first chef I ever saw on television was Justin Wilson. He was a funny old coot with a thick Cajun accent who wore red suspenders and had an ever-present bottle of wine. He’d add a splash of vino to whatever he was cooking, and then tilt the bottle back and guzzle it himself. “Hey, dad!” I’d shout excitedly, whenever his show aired on PBS. “The drunk guy with the funny accent is on!” It didn’t matter what he was cooking, I just wanted to see the humorously-attired old guy who loved to say “I gau-ron-tee it” get smashed on national television.
The first cooking series I ever watched on a regular basis was Iron Chef. Not the flashier American version, but the original one, in Japanese. You know, where the dude screams something that sounds like “I fly a kite in prison!” and takes a bite out of a bell pepper (I guess they were out of apples at the market?) to signal the start of the competition. Then, a mystery ingredient would be unveiled. This was always something any home cook would be comfortable using, like sea urchin or swallow’s nest. The challenger would then do battle in Kitchen Stadium with the “iron chef” of his choice in a cook-off. It all felt like a modern version of a gladiator battle, complete with dueling knives (yet, sadly, missing the lions). The winner was determined by a panel of judges. Best part of all? Everything was dubbed into English. The women always sounded like giggling schoolgirls, and half the fun was in trying to figure out what everybody was really saying, as the translations weren’t always spot-on. This lobster flesh is happy. Your sauce is a genuine deal. The dish makes me feel expectant.
Then there was Emeril. No last name needed, because how many people do you know named Emeril? Exactly. Emeril’s a very enthusiastic chef, shouting out “Bam!” whenever the mood strikes, which is often, and for no apparent reason other than he’s never met a catchphrase he didn’t like. (Insert “kick it up a notch” here). For some reason the bigwigs at NBC decided that the world needed an Emeril sitcom in 2001. Note to NBC bigwigs: chefs should focus on thyme lots, not time slots. Let’s just say Emeril was not the next Bill Cosby, and the show disappeared after a few episodes.
I remember the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver. My enthusiasm waned when I realized that 1) The chef in question wasn’t actually naked, and 2) That Jamie was a boy.
Rachael Ray, on the other hand, is very much a girl. Note to NBC bigwigs: come up with a sitcom called The Naked Chef starring Rachael Ray, and you’ve got a bona fide hit on your hands. Some people say Rachael is overly perky. They get annoyed when she talks about “EVOO” this and “Yum-O!” that. I don’t much care, because she’s quite the hot dish herself.
And then there’s Gordon Ramsay. He’s so popular, he has about half a dozen shows airing at any given time. Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef are my favorites.
Each season of Hell’s Kitchen begins with the 16 contestants cooking their “signature dish” for Ramsay. Invariably, he will spit somebody’s food out and call it “rubbish” and they will look shocked. Umm, have they never seen the show before? Same with the diners who eat there. They act surprised that their entrees sometimes take two hours to arrive. This happens every season – don’t show up starving! Oh, and what year is it – 1959? How many restaurants still serve Beef Wellington? The snooty French Belgian waiter, JP, sadistically goads the losing team while Ramsay and the winners are flying over Los Angeles in helicopters or blimps on their way to fashion shoots or day spas because it’s important to get a taste of a typical day in the life of a real chef. Gordon’s their best friend during these outings, and then when they return to the kitchen his bi-polarism kicks in and he’s shouting at them and calling them funny names like “donkey” and there they are, looking surprised again. It’s Gordon Ramsay! He’s a meanie, remember?
Or is he? Master Chef pits 100 amateur chefs against one another in a kitchen that looks like it once housed the blimp that Ramsay sometimes flies around in on his other show. There are three judges this time; Gordon, a fat guy with goofy glasses whose name I don’t know, and a very stern-looking bald guy whose name I don’t know. It’s clear who the star of this show is. In the beginning, to narrow down contestants, everybody has to stand around doing something monotonous like chopping onions for two hours. Man, I cut one onion at home and tears are streaming down my face. I think I’d quit on the spot. When the field is smaller, they start cooking against each other…only, the judges don’t even taste everybody’s food – only the three dishes that look the prettiest. Is this a cooking contest or an art exhibit?! What a waste of time…and food. Don’t they realize there are starving kids in Africa? And by the way, what did they end up doing with all those acres of chopped onions? On this show, Ramsay isn’t mean at all. He’s actually pretty nice, which seems to confuse the contestants, who were probably expecting the ogre from Hell’s Kitchen. Talk about the ol’ bait-and-switch. Here, the stern-looking-bald-guy-whose-name-I-don’t-know is the bad guy. We know this because he’ll take a bite of somebody’s food and glare at them without saying a word. And that’s if he likes their dish.
It’s hard to say which show I prefer. Hell’s Kitchen feels over the top and a bit staged, but occasionally they show attractive bikini-clad women in hot tubs. Master Chef is more of a pure cooking contest, but they never show attractive bikini-clad women in hot tubs. We do get to see big, burly, tattooed construction workers sauteeing stuff. Come to think of it, I guess one of those shows does have a slight edge.
There is one cooking show, however, that is my hands-down favorite. Top Chef. This is the only program where the focus is truly on cooking challenges, and doesn’t rely on gimmicks (i.e. no blimps or hot tubs here). Most of the contestants are already chefs, and many have their own restaurants, so it’s really more of a vanity contest for them. After all, they’re competing for the title of Top Chef. Narcissistic much? OK, they also get an editorial feature in Food & Wine Magazine, which has a circulation of roughly 600, so there is that, too. Plus some cash. Each episode begins with a Quickfire Challenge, which is a so-called “simple” challenge in which they must cook a dish that meets certain requirements in an hour or less. The reward is immunity, which means they can’t be voted off at the next tribal council. Err…umm…wrong show, but same concept. Then there’s an Elimination Challenge, which is harder. The contestant who screws up the most goes home, while the winner receives something really cool, like…a cookbook. Isn’t the point of being a chef to create your own dishes?
Top Chef makes me want to be a chef. Top Chef also makes me realize how woefully ill-prepared I am to ever become a chef. I consider myself a creative person, but I could never pull together a dish like Pineapple Curry Mussels with Squid Ink Pasta, or Oyster Ceviche with Duck Foie Gras and Fig Empanada with Frisee Salad. I’m taking a walk on the wild side if I add a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup to my meals. Also, I have no idea what a “confit” is, I hopelessly mispronounce “quinoa,” wouldn’t recognize a “gremolata” from a “mousseline”, and would never dream of making a “sea urchin foam.”
Plus, I don’t ever recognize the famous chefs who show up every week to serve as guest judges. Padma or Tom will introduce some ordinary-looking guy, and there’s a collective gasp from the room. Oh, my God! somebody will say as the camera cuts to them for a close-up. It’s Hubert Keller, the French pastry chef and James Beard award winner. I’ve dined in his restaurant, Fleur de Lys, in San Francisco. He’s been such an inspiration to me!
Okey-dokey. If you say so. I might recognize, say, Ronald McDonald. He was totally my inspiration at the age of 7.
Actually, one time I did recognize the guest judge. But that’s only because it was Emeril. Thrilled to have finally known who the famous chef was, I did what anybody else in my shoes would have done.
I shouted, “Bam!”