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Food

"I Want My Chef TV!"

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With last night's (much anticipated) premiere of the third season of Top Chef on Bravo, there now exists a triptych of "reality" television programs each devoted to making one lucky chef a star (and the other contestants infamous). Over on the Food Network we've got The Next Food Network Star, which blends cooking and "star" quality, and on Fox we're two episodes into the blazing fires of the third season of Hell's Kitchen.

And I am watching all of them.

I know, I know. It's the worst kind of brain candy, and it comes with a mighty dose of insult to injury: Viewers can't taste what the participants are cooking! Of course, in many cases--like when Hell's Kitchen's Gordon Ramsay spits the food out and curses its maker--who would want to? (This problem also reinforces the concept of never watching food television when you're hungry; much like going to the grocery store on an empty stomach, this perilous state of being leads to disastrous eating decisions, like last night when I watched the Top Chef premiere while eating a revolting slab of Trader Joe's microwave Eggplant Parmesan.)

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If you can stand the heat, come with me as I take a brief look at each of these competitive kitchens.

The first show to kick off thus far was The Next Food Network Star's third go-'round, and I will admit right off the bat that I did not watch the first two seasons, so I'm new to the party. Here we have eleven hopefuls (pictured, top left) who not only want to cook, but they want their own Food Network show, too. (Last season's winner, Guy Fieri, now has two shows on the network, and I've never heard of the two guys who won the first season, nor seen their show.) This show so far comes in low on the inter-cast drama scale, although a preview of upcoming episodes indicates that someone is pissing someone off, which is to be expected when you get a bunch of adults living like campers in close quarters. The challenges come with some high stakes, like in last Sunday's ep, when someone had their creatively grilled dish chosen to be the cover of July's Bon Appetit mag. It's a weird melange of cooking skills and personality; many of the tests center on the contestants' on-camera performances and how they present themselves and their food. After having watched so many installments of the network's Chefography bio show, I must say I find it a little hypocritical that someone like last week's guest host, Giada DeLaurentis, is critiquing on camera ease, since she was green to hosting when she got handed her own show, and was a self-professed testament to discomfort. My take on the talent: Whoever described Colombe last week as a Snow White-esque character who draws all the woodland creatures around to watch her cook was dead on, and her spacy, dippy persona would not keep me tuned in. Tom and LA's own Paul are just messy, for altogether different reasons, and make me uncomfortable to watch, while Francophile-fanatic Amy makes my skin crawl. I've got my eye on the least experienced chef who seems to have the most engaging personality, Adrien.

Then there's Hell's Kitchen. Oh, me oh my devilish stars, what can be said about the horror of Hell's Kitchen. It is like an addiction fueling crack that hurts so good. I feel a little dirty after watching it, because it's so utterly wrong. I remember last year seeing a notice pinned to the bulletin board at my cooking school seeking applicants for this season, and thinking "Who in their right mind would subject themselves to this humiliation?" Well, it appears that many would, and do. Hell's Kitchen is in no way about the food, which makes it the least legitimate in the sense of the show indicating culinary aptitude. It's really like an "outward bound" type prison boot camp, which is how America seems to like its "reality" programming; make them do awful things at awful hours of the day and make fun of them while they're doing it. I guess that's why they call it Hell. The thing is, many American viewers probably don't know Gordon Ramsay from anywhere else, which is a damn shame. I happen to adore his UK show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, (airs occasionally on BBC America) where the foul-mouthed restaurateur rescues a fumbling restaurant each episode with his tough love and sharp savvy. For Hell's Kitchen Ramsay becomes this monstrous charicature of himself, hurling insults for insult's sake and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Of course with contestants like the ceaselessly blubbering Aaron and the young and foolish Joanna, it's certainly not hard to find things to mock. I have a sneaking suspicion, too, that the "prize" of running your own kitchen is basically a sham, and that really, you get to work in a big fancy restaurant at some resort under someone else's charge. So far I was able to call out who would get sent home early into each of the first two eps (nasty Tiffany and, forgive me, but creepy Eddie), and since I think the casting people went out of their way to find twelve of the most ridiculous and unstable people to ever work a frying pan, I have my eye on absolutely no one. Instead I will sit back, listen to the scored music tell me when to get ready for something "dramatic" and watch it in the way one might rubberneck a grisly highway accident. Yeah, it's that ugly. And I love it.

I've save the best for last: Top Chef (for which I can't find any video, since YouTube is not letting us embed any clips). This year they've left LA and have set up shop in Miami. This is, in my esteem, the high water mark of competitive cooking shows, because the contestants are passionate about cooking, respect the craft of food preparation, and aren't there to churn out someone else's recipe but rather invent their own fare in the face of the challenges' restrictions. Ultimately, how good the food is remains the deciding factor, and a factor that is determined by some extremely respected folks, including last night's guest judge (and a personal fave of mine), the formidable Anthony Bourdain. It's too soon for me to feel out the contestants, since with Top Chef it takes me a good few eps under my belt to assign loyalty. Of all the three shows, this is the only one of which has food I'd like to eat (except maybe not last night's Elimination Challenge dishes, which were "Surf and Turfs" made of exotic proteins, like eel, kangaroo, geoduck clams, black chicken, alligator, and wild boar--maybe that's what made that Eggplant Parmesan of mine so unpalatable!).

I wish I had something wise and pithy to conclude with, but when you're talking a bit of trash about some (beloved) trash television, there isn't any such type of conclusion. So I'll keep watching, and I'm sure I'll keep talking...