Let’s stipulate up front that I know I shouldn’t be watching this garbage. In spite of that, my wife and I eagerly await all three shows each week. At least we have TiVO.
What garbage you ask? You were probably doing something intelligent like pruning your hedges while we watched the current crop of "reality" shows The Next Food Network Star, Hell’s Kitchen, and Top Chef.
The Next Food Network Star is probably the worst of the lot. It is all about finding a personality to host their own show on Food Network. The regular judges are Food Network execs, with one of their current celebrities as a guest host each week. The actual cooking content is very light, with most of the focus on teaching the contestants to look at the camera, smile, and explain what smoked paprika is without scorching themselves or curdling the cream sauce. In this year’s crop there is only one guy, Jag, that seems to be really talented. And sadly they keep asking him to dumb down his food.
Hell’s Kitchen (on Fox) is a star vehicle for legendary British screamer Gordon Ramsay. Most of the trials he puts the contestants through are aimed at training them to be effective line cooks. They are divided into two teams, and each week they have a short challenge. The winning team gets a reward, and the losers get to do unpleasant things like scrub all the grease traps. In the second half of the show, they attempt to complete a service at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant venue in LA, and Ramsay yells, bullies and belittles them, dumps food in the trash and on their jackets, and generally attempts to break them down. To me it just seems kind of funny, I can’t imagine it would really bother me. Some of the things people do under pressure are fairly amazing, including one woman who pulled spaghetti back out of the garbage and tried to serve it. My hero this year is Julia, a short order cook at Waffle House who is holding her own against the others who supposedly have a lot of fine dining experience. If you’ve ever watched the Waffle House cooks handle a full after-church crowd perfectly with no written tickets and a bunch of waitresses shouting orders at them in code, you wouldn’t be surprised. By the way, if you like this show you should probably read his recent tell-all, Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen: Temper Tantrums, F Words, and the Pursuit of Perfection.
And finally, on Bravo, there is my favorite, Top Chef. Hosted by Tom Colicchio (chef of the Craft mini-empire in NYC) and Padma Lakshmi (who is primarily known as a model, and actress but has also written a cookbook and is married to Salman Rushdie). The funniest thing about this show is the absurd level of product placement. Padma is always saying thngs like "you’ll have 30 minutes in the Kenmore Elite kitchen to complete your Kahlua Coffee Liqueur inspired appetizers". On the plus side, after they wash out a few obvious losers the remaining candidates are all very skilled cooks who can both invent and execute beautiful dishes in record breaking time. Most of the problems occur when they can’t play nice with others or when they try to work with unfamiliar ingredients. On the first couple of seasons they had a lot of gag challenges, like making them cook with only ingredients from a vending machine, but now it is mostly all "real" food. If you were going to give one of these shows a look in hopes of actually learning a technique or flavor that you might want to use in your own cooking (and thus assuaging your guilt at watching the tube) this is the one.