January 8, 2010

Bottom Chef

On January 3, 2010, the Food Network became self-aware. This historic day marked the series premiere of Worst Cooks in America, the point when the network realized that most people who tune in have little to no cooking ability. This may come as a surprise when you consider that most of the Food Network’s shows consist of basic cooking demonstrations, with some baking competitions and Guy Fieri thrown in. But it’s not the art of cooking or a certain chef’s skill that appeals to the viewers; it’s the end result, the food itself. I don’t think most people care how well Paula Deen cooks. They just want to see the butter-filled madness that she whips up. If all the Food Network did was show dramatic shots of freshly baked cookies and steaming hunks of meat, people would probably tune in regardless.

Worst Cooks isn’t so much a drastic departure from any of the other cooking shows (it is just another reality-competition after all), but rather a portrait of the average person’s ineptness in the most fundamental of skill sets. Two teams of self-described “worst” cooks compete to see who can improve the most over the course of the season. Inevitably, each chef must demonstrate their profound inability to cook in an initial demonstration. Inevitably, each chef fails miserably and mocking ensues. One grand example was the Turnip Surprise—hollowed-out turnips stuffed with beef, rhubarb and asparagus. A surprise indeed.

Bravo, home of Tom Colicchio and his merry band of chefs, a.k.a, Top Chef, actually beat Food Network to the chase when it released Chef Academy in November of last year. Yet another show involving an internationally acclaimed chef trying to teach a diverse cast of bumbling cooks (a chain-smoking television producer, an ex-submarine cook, and a former French porn actor turned graphic designer…to name a few) how to clean a fish, properly cut an onion, and bake a loaf of bread. As much as head chef Novelli likes to spend his time lambasting American customs and playing practical jokes, the show actually focuses on the fundamentals of cooking that most people overlook. Basic knife skills, some simple pastry-making, etc… This is a real cooking show for a person who thinks the only oven they need in their kitchen is of the microwave variety.

The fantasy world of cooking in Iron Chef and Top Chef is as delicate as the Fabergé-esque dishes that they create. Though sometimes cooking does involve superchefs creating food that borders on artwork, it is more often the sad reality of failed attempts at rather banal dishes. For every hickory- smoked pork belly a chef makes, there is a man trying to boil a whole chicken, and every airy gruyere soufflé that comes through the kitchen is trailed by some housewife’s omelette avec eggshells.

Though the show’s appeal derives from the contestants’ ability to completely humiliate themselves and the head chefs’ ability to provide clever one-liners, it manages to be a surprisingly enlightening experience. I will be the first to admit that although I know the difference between a porterhouse steak and a T-bone, I have no idea how to cook either. Watching these cooks struggle to prepare some pasta is at once intimidating and strangely inspirational. I mock them; we, the viewers mock them, but chances are…we’re probably just like them.

Ultimately, any basic statistics class or modicum of common sense will tell you that two does not make a trend. Bravo and the Food Network, who essentially have a complete monopoly over cooking shows on TV, are probably just competing with one another. But both are clearly trying to tell the viewer that if a bunch of idiots can learn to cook, then you should get your ass in the kitchen. Oddly sage advice from two channels that, at one point or another, both showcased a man trying to eat a seven-pound burger.