I have a hard time getting into cooking shows, for the simple reason that taste-o-vision has not yet been invented. If a contestant on a cooking show produces a coq au vin, and Gordon Ramsay (or whoever) tastes the dish and says, “This is bland and awful and your parents should be ashamed of you,” we have to take Ramsay’s word for it.
If Ramsay tasted the same dish and said, “This is the single greatest thing I’ve ever eaten and I’d like to make you my sous-chef at my restaurant in New York,” again, we’d just have to take his word for it.
We all know by now that reality shows are only partially “real,” also — it’s a well-understood fact that producers will fudge (apologies for using a food term) the outcomes we see on screen by giving surreptitious help to the popular contestants, by prearranging the format of the week’s competition to favor that contestants’ strengths or by other means. Thus, since we do not yet have taste-o-visions in our home, we cannot be 100 percent certain that the judge is telling us how the dish really tastes, and not just saying whatever will make the producers’ chosen winner win.
Even beyond all that, many cooking shows feature very little cooking anymore: “Hell’s Kitchen,” for example, seems to go more for the popular “here are some really stupid, unsophisticated rednecks who get into screaming arguments over the smallest disagreement” angle. If that show starts with 20 contestants, 16 will be loud, easily-angered morons who will get most of the screentime, and the remaining four will be talented chefs who will quietly advance through every round, and when one of them inevitably wins, the viewer will say, “I don’t remember this guy even being on the show!”
Thus, it takes a lot for me to enjoy a cooking show, but I can recommend exactly one: “Cutthroat Kitchen” (2013-17).
Hosted by veteran food-show personality Alton Brown, “Cutthroat Kitchen” followed a fairly simple formula: A number of chefs competed to produce the best take on a standard dish, and one was eliminated in each round until one stood alone as the winner. In this case, four chefs started in round one, which usually called for the competitors to make an appetizer or breakfast dish, three competed in round two (usually an entree) and the two finalists squared off in a dessert round.
“Cutthroat” differed from the usual food program in two respects. At the beginning of each round, the chefs had only one minute to grab their ingredients for their next dish from a small storage area, which led to a scrambling melee that looked like what you might see in the toys section on Black Friday.
Although entertaining, the ingredient scramble only occasionally threw off the chefs, such as when one forgot to grab eggs when the food of the round was eggs Benedict. Oops!
The fun really began after the scramble, however, in the form of various “sabotages.” Each contestant started the game with $25,000, and before (and sometimes during) each cooking round, Brown would auction off two or three different items, penalties or other inconveniences that the auction-winner could inflict on their opponents. Ingredients could be confiscated, two chefs could be tied together or have to use their non-dominant hand exclusively, or a chef could have to do all their cutting with a sheet of tin foil. In a potato-dish round, I saw one chef win the right to replace his opponents’ fresh potatoes with potato chips.
The sabotages provide the evil fun of the show and contribute both to the strategy — only the winner gets to keep whatever money they have left over at the end, so contestants have to weigh whether to spend on the sabotage or risk being subjected to it — and the creativity: Chefs who suffer some kind of sabotage often have to produce an original “take” on the dish of the round, since they may be made unable to produce a standard version of it.
“Cutthroat” aired on Food Network for four years, and though it has now ceased production, that was enough time to (somehow!) produce 15 seasons combining for nearly 200 30-minute episodes, so viewers will not quickly run out of evil fun. The show still airs re-runs on FN, and all episodes are also available on Hulu.
And if, unlike me, you like all kinds of cooking shows, many of the contestants on “Cutthroat” are well-known veterans from other popular shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Chopped!” So if you are a proper food-show addict, you might recognize someone. But fair warning, the ones that show up on “Cutthroat” are the good chefs from those other shows, rather than the angry idiots.