Why can’t we stop watching food shows? Because they’re not really about cooking
Food shows are more about gonzo tourism and crazy competitions than cooking—which is why we can’t stop feasting on them
Back in the days of Julia Child, food shows consisted of a monologuing chef making accessible dishes in a pristine kitchen full of pre-filled bowls ready to be dumped and stirred. The entertainment value lay mostly in the host’s gregarious personality. Over the years, that model has been souped up (Emeril Lagasse yelling “Bam!” every time he adds seasoning), and sexed up (Nigella Lawson and Giada De Laurentiis playing domestic goddesses who wax orgasmic over every item they prepare). But the basic form, a demonstration of recipes that most often aired in the day for the benefit of stay-at-home moms, remained constant.
Then reality TV happened. As did entire networks devoted to food and the cult of the celebrity chef. Food appreciation leapt from the peripheries to the centre of mainstream culture. The concepts behind modern food shows have become increasingly elaborate and the stakes cranked up so high that food, whether it’s being cooked or consumed, is more a matter of sport than taste. The ideal host used to be a cross between Jacques Pépin and Mr. Rogers; the new model would pit Pépin against Rogers in a caged cook-off.
The entertainment-first ethos is on full display in a trio of new food shows. The Illegal Eater, a culinary adventure show hosted by former Barenaked Lady Steven Page, premiers this season on Travel and Escape, while the Food Network has Chopped Canada and Cutthroat Kitchen, both in the blood-sport vein of the Iron Chef and Top Chef competition series.
In the first episode of The Illegal Eater, Page visits a pig farm in the Deep South. He is the guest of a Charleston native named Jimi Hatt, who teaches Page to shoot guns. To prepare, they chug 120-proof moonshine out of Mason jars. (Hatt is a veritable hooch artisan who distills the stuff from heirloom corn in small batches.) Page squeezes off a round at a row of bottles, turns to the camera and shouts, “Holy fuck! I just shot a gun.” Hatt then grabs an automatic rifle and decimates the bottles the host isn’t man enough to finish off.
The Illegal Eater belongs to a sub-genre of gonzo travel shows in which eating is an epic feat of hedonism. Hosts like Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri and You Gotta Eat Here’s John Catucci immerse themselves in a world of nine-pound cheeseburgers and chicken-fried pies with the reckless appetite of Hunter S. Thompson. These shows exist beyond any concern for good health or taste, which is why they are so cathartic to watch.
Page is more a gastro-explorer for the twee set. He visits underground restaurants, unlicensed bars and secret pop-ups across North America, eating fully formed duck fetus from the shell and sipping malört, one of the bitterest boozes in existence. In voice-over, he drops culinary buzzwords like “unconventional,” “off-the-grid” and “clandestine.” The show involves very little actual cooking on camera. It’s more about Page questing for weird things to put in his mouth. In his bespoke suit, bow tie and geek-chic glasses, he’s the perfect guide for the current crop of urbanites who regularly seek out novelty dining experiences.
As fun as it is to watch someone destroy, as Page does, six courses of bacon (washed down with bacon cocktails), the competition shows make for better TV. A chef’s creative process is a storm of personality clashes, injuries and expletives. And the success or failure of the dish is instantly determinable by the looks on the judges’ faces when they taste it (or discreetly spit it into a napkin).
Chopped, the hugely popular U.S. series that spawned the forthcoming Chopped Canada, draws the hardest-core contingent of food TV fans. It’s pure culinary sport. In it, four chefs improvise dishes from their basket of mystery ingredients over the course of three 20-minute rounds. One memorable combination included a rack of wild boar, broccolini, hazelnuts and a three-tiered cake encased in orange fondant. By the time the chefs present their creations to the judges, they’re frazzled, dripping with sweat and sometimes coddling bloody fingers. The judges pile on the pressure with fatalistic assessments like, “The black radish does not want to be a chip. That’s just not what it’s destined to be.” On Chopped, chefs are reduced to tears more often than on almost any other cooking show.
The recently premiered Cutthroat Kitchen takes the Chopped formula and adds a little Deal or No Deal, a little American Gladiators and a whole lot of social psychology experimentation. Four chefs get $25,000 each to spend on items with which to sabotage their competitors. The cook who can produce three winning dishes amid the shenanigans gets to take home whatever money she hasn’t spent crippling the competition, usually a small fraction of the original $25,000.
The whole show is farcically divorced from any real-life kitchen: in the premiere, chefs are tasked with making a turkey dinner, given 60 seconds to gather ingredients—a mad scramble causing frequent slips and falls—then just 30 minutes to cook. One contestant is forced to prepare her bird using only a Swiss Army knife, with predictably messy results. In another episode, a cook spends $16,000 to buy a can of chipotle peppers away from his nemesis and ends up winning.
Interviews are interspersed throughout the action, offering up more threats and braggadocio than a WWE pre-fight show. A macho, bearded cook describes himself as a lion in sheep’s clothing who doesn’t give a damn about the other sheep’s feelings. Lori, a rouge-lipped contestant wearing the sweetest polka-dot kerchief, brags about being the kind of person who will stab you quietly in the back and then give you a hug.
The new breed of cooking show taps the core of human behaviour—the game isn’t about the prizes, it’s about the ruthless acts of ambition it takes earn them. We watch for the cooking, sure, but mostly for the burns.