I am competitive. I try to keep this to myself, but oh, in my heart of hearts, I want to win anything that can be won. As a child, I needed to earn the highest grades and offer, when called upon, the most astute answers, the better to impress teacher. Yes, I was that girl. I have a national Scrabble ranking, though it is not impressive. When I sit across from other word nerds, I want to destroy them. I feel competitive when driving on the interstate, when following the career arcs of other writers, when reading a book and the Kindle tells me I have eight hours left. That is a throwing down of the gauntlet. I determine to finish in six.
When we compete, we try to prove we are excellent. When we win, we say, “I have mastered this endeavor, and I am excellent.” The rush is seductive. I am not alone in craving that rush, and perhaps that is why contests have become the mainstay of so many cultural pursuits that don’t seem conducive to them. Spelling bees and poker and bridge tournaments—nothing too surprising. But then we start to get further afield—eating, arm wrestling, Quidditch, running with the bulls, even rock-paper-scissors championships. No matter how exotic or mundane the arena, someone wants to be the best.
It is perhaps inevitable that we have ended up here, in a robust age of cooking television, privy to a lineup of increasingly complex tests that will reveal once and for all who is the best chef in the land. These shows feed the insatiable cultural appetite for reality television while offering more than a parade of pretty people through potentially humiliating or harrowing circumstances. We want a spectacle, but sometimes we want it imbued with a sense of purpose.Food is also delicious, and we get a masochistic thrill watching it lovingly prepared but knowing we are unlikely ever to taste such delights.
This madness began 20-odd years ago when Iron Chef debuted in Japan in 1993 and was later picked up by the Food Network and aired in the United States, at first replete with dubbing reminiscent of Godzilla movies, then as an Americanized knockoff. The premise was both simple and elaborate. A man named Chairman Kaga enjoyed hosting battles in a “kitchen stadium” decked out with modern equipment and a full pantry. The iron chefs, masters of their craft, were challenged in each episode by upstart chefs of varying renown. Contestants were tasked with using a mystery ingredient to prepare the most impressive dishes they could to determine “whose cuisine reigns supreme.” One more twist—the chefs had an hour. Nothing brings out the thrill of competition like an artificial time constraint.
This doesn’t sound like a promising premise, but the show’s play-by-play commentary and slow-motion shots of, say, food dropped into a fryer made it seem like something real was at stake. It was always interesting to see what each chef would do with ingredients that have been over the years, at times, bewildering—Asyura oyster, blue-foot chicken. Judges exhaustively narrated their experience eating the dishes. At home, we watched this delectation and wanted more.
"Top Chef" Season 10 winner Kristen Kish, third from the right, poses with judges, from left, Hugh Acheson, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, and Emeril Lagasse.
In the years since, televised competitive cooking has become a bustling industry. Much of the current interest was spurred by the debut, in 2006, of Bravo’s Top Chef. Each season, a gaggle of chefs converge with knives sharpened in an American city (New Orleans, New York, Miami, Chicago, Seattle). The contestants live together—cloistered, as so many reality--television participants are. But for the most part, Top Chef is about cooking. Episodes start with a “quickfire” challenge, often with a celebrity guest judge. Contestants, or chef--testants if you will, have to create the perfect omelet or the perfect hamburger or the perfect amuse-bouche using convenience--mart ingredients like pork rinds and a prepackaged ham-and-cheese sandwich. Quickfire winners earn not only the flush of victory but an advantage in the subsequent elimination challenge, whether it is first choice of ingredients or extra prep time.
The elimination round is the show’s centerpiece. The chef-testants prepare a meal for a celebrity, a healthy but delicious lunch for schoolchildren, or hors d’oeuvres for festivalgoers. As with Iron Chef, Top Chef makes it seem like something greater than prize money and career opportunities is being fought for. This is, you might say, about culinary honor.
Top Chef has succeeded because it is reality television with a veneer of mannered restraint. Certainly, drama arises among the chefs. But food is the point, and pornographically so. In addition to seeing each dish prepared in the show’s crucible, we see it beautifully plated and watch the judges eat and wax rhapsodically (or not) about its merits.
Not all cooking-competition shows are so well behaved. Brash British chef Gordon Ramsay reigns over Hell’s Kitchen, which originated in the U.K. The prize is, purportedly, a head-chef position at a fine restaurant. The format is curious. Early in the season, the contestants are divided into teams and given one job—to manage a successful dinner service. Spoiler alert: They rarely do. Ramsay is something of a kitchen tyrant, lording it over the contestants as they try to prepare beef Wellington and soufflés and other dishes. It’s fun to hear Ramsay shouting, “I need three risotto, please,” in his gruff and staccato voice while the contestants fail, miserably, at tasks they have long been doing professionally, beyond the glare of reality television.
Though other networks try their hand at competitive cooking shows, the Food Network is still at the forefront. In his recent book From Scratch, Allen Salkin charts the network’s rise to prominence. By the late aughts, its personality-driven shows like Emeril Live and Molto Mario were proving expensive to produce and waning in ratings. In one of the book’s more charming anecdotes, Salkin reveals the origins of an entry into the competitive genre, Chopped, whose backstory is stranger than you might think. The show was pitched with the setup of a “tycoon” planning to throw a dinner party in his castle. Salkin writes, “His butler, a snooty John Cleese type, would find four sous chefs who would compete in the castle kitchen for the privilege of cooking the dinner. The competition covered three rounds: an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. After each round, one chef would be eliminated by a panel of judges. The food of each eliminated chef would be scraped into a dog bowl and fed, on camera, to the butler’s ravenous Chihuahua.”
Alas, during the taping, the dog, Pico, was a problem. If he had been fed throughout the day, he would get sick. The strange elements didn’t come together—too much affect. What did work was the four contestants taking everything so seriously—“these chefs [were] dying to play this game and compete and prove they made the right choices in their lives,” said Linda Lea, a Food Network producer. What gripped the audience was the chefs in their pursuit to be excellent, to be the best.
I am always mesmerized by Chopped, now in its 20th season—Food Network seasons are notoriously abbreviated so that multiple seasons can appear in a calendar year. At the beginning of each course, we feel a giddy moment of anticipation as the chefs grapple with the secret basket of ingredients they are given and instructed to highlight. In one early episode’s opening round, the chefs had to work with baby octopus, bok choy, oyster sauce, and smoked paprika. They moved on to duck breast, green onions, ginger, and honey. Finally, the two chefs left standing wrangled prunes, animal crackers, and cream cheese into a dessert. There is a sadistic glee in the composition of many of the baskets, which become puzzles that must be solved in 20 minutes—a culinary Rubik’s Cube.
A scene from the set of "Chopped: All-Stars"
The judges, renowned chefs, take the proceedings seriously. From their deliberation table, they offer commentary and wisdom as the competing chefs toil over hot stoves. As time winds down, a judge will often say, “Just get it on the plate,” or “Grind it out.” Though they will decide the chefs’ fates, they make it seem like they want nothing but the best for the chef-testants.
Chopped has spawned redemption episodes in which losing chef-testants return and try to, well, redeem themselves. Besides a now-traditional celebrity edition of the show, a new Chopped cookbook has arrived. The book encourages people to “use what you’ve got to cook something great” and “focuses on ingredients most Americans tend to buy every week at the supermarket.” The recipes and tips treat preparing dinner like a more realistic version of working with basket ingredients. We are armed, the book implies, with the potential for greatness by using this cookbook and supplies in our kitchens. We no longer have to lust for food we cannot have. We can satiate ourselves.
Competitive cooking shows have become increasingly and intriguingly convoluted as the market crowds. In Food Court Wars, two teams vie for a year’s lease in a food court. Guy’s Grocery Games sends chefs racing through aisles of food products. Cutthroat Kitchen, hosted by Food Network mainstay Alton Brown, eggs chefs on to bid for nefarious obstacles they can bestow upon fellow competitors; things quickly get out of hand. In Sweet Genius, pastry chefs enjoy their moment, with strange and flummoxing ingredients sent to the chefs on a conveyor belt. Worst Cooks in America pits against each other people who have no business being in a kitchen. The entire United States is the stage for The Great Food Truck Race, in which entrepreneurial-wannabe teams compete to win their own food truck. Let us not forget Extreme Chef, in which contestants cook MREs in the galley of a Coast Guard cutter, or in a desert using the indigenous tools of Native Americans, or on a mountain after trekking up with supplies to prepare a meal.
What is it about food television that captures our imagination? While we are in an age of competitive cooking, we are also in the age of slow food and locally sourced, organic ingredients. The middle classes, at least, have new ways to think about food and unprecedented opportunities to consume better food.
Food is not simply sustenance; it is a significant part of a growing cultural conversation, albeit a privileged and fanciful one. In addition to watching people compete, we feel like if we watch these shows, we might absorb some culinary excellence.
In one season of Top Chef, a contestant talked about preparing a velouté, a soup or sauce made of chicken, veal, or fish stock and cream and thickened with butter and flour. I loved the sound of “velouté,” so sensuous off the tongue, and even though I am a vegetarian, I became obsessed with the idea, deploying the word whenever I could. I found vegetarian velouté recipes and used the technique to prepare sauces. I cannot say I achieved any kind of greatness, but I certainly expanded my repertoire.
I cannot help but feel these shows speak to a need, a yearning for that which we dare not eat. There’s no denying that we have a fraught relationship to food. We have these bodies, and they must be fed. Our bodies, however, can only be fed so much before they become unruly. Beyond these shows, we are inundated by commercials for diet products and sensible snacks. We read about weight loss in glossy magazines. We fret over cellulite and count calories. Perhaps we watch these shows to attempt to satisfy a hunger that never will be satisfied. Perhaps we watch these shows to consume beautiful food without consequence for our delicately human bodies.