The Weary Epicurean—April 29, 2008

By James Kraft

We are living in the golden age of television cooking contests. This odd hybrid format, which didn’t even exist until 1993, is now primetime television not just on the lowly Food Network, but on market leaders like Fox and Bravo—and for good reason, too. Whether you like looking at luscious images of gourmet food, the Real World–esque human drama, or just enjoy watching other people judge one another, TV cook-offs are the way to go.

We’ve come a long way since the Food Network brought Iron Chef to America, though a part of my heart has never left Kitchen Stadium. Those were the epic yesteryears of cooking, when “Potato!” could be the secret ingredient, or $10,000 worth of lobster might be used to flavor a plate of asparagus. The kung fu film cinematography and badly timed English dubbing lent the series an exhilarating, camp feel, while the extreme dejection of the losers and equally passionate joy of the winners always capped each episode with a flourish of emotion.

Iron Chef was the Beowulf of cooking television, complete with heroes, monsters, excessive consumption, and funny-sounding English.

If Iron Chef was Beowulf, though, then Top Chef is The Odyssey—and I have season one in mind, in particular. All of a sudden there was a show on television with actual, classically trained chefs, hanging around being talented and making things. And they’re on a journey, with missions. Just as Queer Eye started to suck, Bravo gave me a reason to keep watching. And then, in season two, they threw in the beautiful Padma Lakshmi as a host. What more could you possibly want?

Contestants compete each week in two challenges: a “quickfire” in which they must come up with a dish on the spot, usually with severe restrictions on the ingredients and supplies available to them, and then an “elimination challenge,” in which they must work individually or together to wow a panel of judges. A different executive chef is also featured each week as a guest judge. Past challenges have run the gamut from cooking gyros for drunken Miami club-goers to preparing halibut at Le Cirque for Sirio Maccioni.

And now they’re shooting in Chicago. So far, this season has featured a deep-dish pizza contest, a gala at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and a barbecue contest at a Bears game. It’s just almost too much—but then they whip out Eric Ripert or Paul Kahan, and well, it is too much—which is to say, amazing. Actually, the most amazing part was how well Kahan fit in at the tailgate party—but then again, having tasted the boiled pork shoulder and the herb foccaccia bread at his family-style restaurant, Avec, I shouldn’t have been too surprised by that. Elegant hominess is kind of his deal.

One last comment on this season’s contestants: My money’s on Dale to win, Mark to place, and Andrew to get the crap kicked out of him by all the other contestants for wearing such ridiculous hats.

Another great cooking show this season is Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, which features the endlessly watchable, world-class chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsey as captain of a sort of boot-camp kitchen. The contestants range from rank amateurs to seasoned pros, but ultimately, this show is a battle of personalities. If Ramsey likes contestants, they’ll receive training, tips, and encouragement. If they piss him off, no amount of skill can save them.

And here’s the clincher: The grand prize isn’t a mere payout, as in Top Chef; it’s a job working for Ramsey himself as executive chef at one of his restaurants. Obviously, human drama is the main draw for this show, particularly that emanating from the shar-pei–like visage of the perma-mad Ramsey. I don’t think you even have to like cooking to watch it.

Or maybe you do—I can’t really tell, seeing as I’m absolutely obsessed with the subject matter. But I have noticed that whenever I’m watching one of my nutso, Po-mo cooking shows, my roommates tend to end up on the couch next to me watching. And then, when the next episode comes out, they’re hooked, too.