Julia Child never turned me on. With her demonstrative TV cooking show, and others like it, there was always an underlying assumption that you’d find it within yourself to bounce off the couch, head into the kitchen and whip up an exquisite bouillabaisse, or something of the sort.
But for a guy whose culinary prowess tops out at Pop-Tarts, that kind of overt interactivity is a recipe for disaster. So why view if you’re not going to do?
On the other hand, I have absolutely no problem passively watching frazzled wannabe chefs go to great lengths to outshine one another as the paring knives and expletives fly. Yes, that’s right: I enjoy a good food fight.
And that’s just what television has served up this summer as three competition-driven food shows recently launched their new seasons. Each of them features frantic beat-theclock cookoffs and delectable “Survivor”-style eliminations, but they take vastly different approaches to determining their winners.
On Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” hapless contestants are forced to endure the wrath of chef Gordon Ramsay, an egotistical, foul-mouthed Brit who makes Simon Cowell look like Paula Abdul.
On Bravo’s “Top Chef: Miami,” the competition is every bit as intense — if a little less bleep-riddled. But at least the participants get to unwind at the end of the day in a gorgeous penthouse apartment overlooking the ocean. That is, unless you’re the one they exile with the lame kiss-off line, “Pack your knives and go.”
Meanwhile, on “The Next Food Network Star,” it’s important that contestants not only prove they can cook, but also display telegenic appeal (“Wow us with your food and your personality!”). That’s because the winner will get their own show on the Food Network, where culinary heavyweights like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray hang out.
“Star” is the kindest and gentlest of the cooking shows. Its contestants are usually civil to one another, and the judges — Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman — aren’t fire-breathing dragons. Obviously, someone forgot to mail the Reality TV Handbook to the producers.
Conversely, if your idea of entertainment is watching a borderline psychotic bully and berate his charges until they’re practically ready to stick their heads in the oven, then “Hell’s Kitchen” is the place for you. It’s a show that gives fresh meaning to the mandate “If you can’t stand the heat…”
In the season opener, Ramsay demanded that the 12 hopefuls cook their signature dishes for his review. Naturally, the wicked demon-master despised nearly all of them. After sampling one dish, he spat it out and yelled, “It tastes like gnat’s (urine)!”
Said a quivering female contestant, “He makes me want to pee my pants because he’s so scary.” Another one, a burly man in a cowboy hat, just kept breaking into tears.
The problem with “Hell’s Kitchen” is that too much time is spent on Ramsay’s verbal beat-downs and not nearly enough is devoted to the actual preparation of the food. And with Lucifer hogging the spotlight, you don’t get a great feel for the contestants, although Julia, a Waffle House cook from Atlanta, has emerged as a charming underdog worthy of our cheers.
There’s also a fair amount of stress and hostility running through “Top Chef: Miami,” but this show — my favorite of the bunch — at least puts more emphasis on the food, and its contestants collectively appear to have the most talent.
The competitions on “Top Chef” are also a hoot. In a recent episode, the contestants underwent a “Quickfire” challenge in which they were required to make something called an amuse-bouche (a bite-sized treat before the main meal) in 10 minutes, out of food scraps left over from a party.
Later, in an elimination challenge, they were ordered to make a surf-and-turf dish, choosing from a collection of exotic entrees that included sea urchin, eel, rattlesnake, kangaroo, wild boar and alligator tail. Oh, yummy.
Several of the concoctions received raves, but, of course, some failed to pass the taste test. “I would like this … if I was drunk,” said guest judge Anthony Bourdain of one entree.