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The Insatiable Viewer: Not All Food Shows Are Created Equal

Now is a very good time to be a television-loving foodie, with several networks other than stalwarts Food Network or PBS devoting air time to culinary-themed programming. In fact, it's safe to say that cuisine as a whole has entered the general zeitgeist in a way that it couldn't really have done before the public's embrace of reality programming.

But there's a rather large caveat: not all food programming is equal. While television offers a bountiful cornucopia of culinary series, there's still a large difference in the quality of these programs, not to mention a staggering range of subjects being covered. There are docusoaps that focus on cake-makers, competition series pitting chefs against each other, old fashioned cook-offs, food-focused travel series, and product spotlights.

While I'd never be able to offer up a comprehensive discussion of all of these series (they are too numerous to even contemplate as a whole), I thought I'd take a look at a few members of the current crop of culinary programs and offer my thoughts about how each stacks up to the competition, with Bravo's Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, Food Network's Chopped, BBC America's Gordon Ramsay's F Word, and FOX's Hell's Kitchen.

So, sit back, grab yourself a plate of something tasty, and let's get cooking.

Top Chef (Bravo)

Top Chef really is the mirepoix of culinary programs today: that essential base that makes all others possible. And likewise, the cabler has taken this base to build an entire Top Chef franchise, which kicked off last month with spin-off Top Chef Masters. The conceit of Top Chef is simple: pit a group of ambitious chefs against one another for a cash prize and a chance at fame and fortune.

I remember when Top Chef first launched, there was concern that the audience wouldn't eat it up in the way that they did the network's own Project Runway. After all, it's hard to experience food visually in the same way that it is fashion on the runway. Wrong. Just look at the sheer number of food magazines, cookbooks, and food-themed memoirs to know that consumers have an insatiable appetite for all things food-related.

Produced by Magical Elves, Top Chef is a stylish and slick production that puts the emphasis squarely on the competitors' dishes, discussing strategy and flavor profiles with equal relish. It helps that the judges are a band of the culinary world's most celebrated stars: chef/restaurateur Tom Collichio, Food & Wine editor Gail Simmons, and a revolving door of arbiters that has included at times chef/memoirist/novelist/TV personality Anthony Bourdain, Ted Allen (who now hosts Food Network's own Chopped), journalist/food critic/Truman Capote manque Toby Young, and many, many others.

Several seasons down the line, Top Chef has remained essential television viewing for any self-respecting foodie, fusing the world of reality competition with the rigorous and demanding world of high cuisine. The casting is always impeccable, the chefs are always forward-thinking and creative, and the stakes are always high. Seeing these up-and-comers put through their paces each week with both a short-form Quickfire Challenge and a longer, more complex Elimination Challenge is a real treat, offering viewers the opportunity to see the chefs adapt, plan, react, and execute dishes under an array of difficult scenarios. The results are as delicious as the dishes they present.

Grade: A

Top Chef Masters (Bravo)

Any discussion of Top Chef would have to involve that of its recent offspring, Top Chef Masters, which launched a few weeks ago on Bravo and has sated the appetite of many a Top Chef fan eager for the return of their favorite series. While the series didn't start off with quite the confidence and poise of its predecessor, recent episodes have shown the series finding its footing and developing into its own tasty dish. Like Top Chef, the spin-off series puts its contestants through both a speedy Quickfire Challenge and a more structured Elimination Challenge, but this time around the contestants are boldfaced names from the restaurant business competing for charity.

Which gives the contestants more to prove (bragging rights are even more essential here) but also takes the series away from its original format. Given that there are twenty-four world-class chefs involved with the series (each with their own demanding schedules), Top Chef Masters pits four of them against each other a week, with the winners moving on to the champion round. While it makes for some high-stakes drama--if you don't win, you're off the series for good--it also loses some points for inconsistency. Each week presents a new batch of chefs, so it's hard to root for anyone in particular as we're not seeing them on a regular basis and each subsequent week brings in a fresh crop of competitors.

Still, this is a minor quibble. Top Chef Masters has proven itself compulsory culinary television viewing and has successfully tweaked the format of its forebear, offering up a different grading rubric that allows the Quickfire results, the individual judges, and the diners equal weight. When dealing with such celebrated chefs as the Top Chef Masters players, it's a nice change, though I do flinch when the results are read out from lowest to highest score, eliminating much of the drama there. Still, it's a meal I look forward to savoring each week.

Grade: A-

Chopped (Food Network)

I was intrigued when Chopped launched earlier this year on Food Network, given that it featured former Top Chef judge Ted Allen as a host and promised to put professional chefs through the ringer by forcing them to cook a three-course meal using mystery ingredients, with one chef eliminated--or "chopped" in parlance--after each course. Sort of like a Quickfire Challenge with bite, no?

Sadly, I have to say that I'm disappointed by this Top Chef wannabe. Perhaps it's the fact that poor Ted Allen is so woefully underused and offers nothing whatsoever to the proceedings. He doesn't taste the food nor act as a judge and is typically reduced to offering up some painfully scripted (and oftentimes rhyming) introductions and segues. Sure, he will occasionally lean over a competing chef's station and inquire about what they're doing but it feels stilted and out of place. There's no running commentary a la Iron Chef and, hell, even Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi has some input on the judging.

The concept is intriguing but it's the execution that's definitely lacking. It doesn't help matters that (A) the set is dark and oppressive and feels like it's being shot in someone's too-small Manhattan apartment and (B) the judges seem awkward and icy cold, offering very little in the way of constructive feedback and remaining completely unknowable to the home audience. There's very little personality at play on the judges' table and nothing they say is particularly memorable or exciting.

Which is a problem when there are going to be numerous comparisons to Top Chef. (The cabler also offers the Top Chef-esque Search for the Next Food Nework Star.) I've given Chopped, now in its second season, several opportunities to wow me but the results haven't been enough to keep me excited about this lackluster program. This is one course I'm more than happy to send back to the kitchen.

Grade: C+

Gordon Ramsay's F Word (BBC America/Channel 4 UK)

British import Gordon Ramsay's F Word (which airs on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom) has to be one of the most controversial and fun food programs ever to run on US television. The reason many people seem to find it frenetic and overstuffed is the very reason that I love it so much: it's a magazine-style food program with recurring segments that are blended with competition (kitchen brigades compete for a chance to cook in one of Ramsay's restaurants), behind-the-scenes (Ramsay raises sheep, pigs in his back garden!), reportage (Janet Street-Porter investigates foie gras production), celebrity interviews (Ramsay faces off with a celebrity of the week in a recipe challenge), how-to (Ramsay shows you how to simply prepare these dishes at home), and grassroots campaign (this season shows Ramsay offering tips on how to cook healthier meals). Whew.

It's a heady brew of travelogue, cooking show, competition, celebrity, practical how-to, and behind-the-scenes that I find absolutely intoxicating. Ramsay is also in his element here and it's easy to see his innate passion for cuisine rather than the bluster and bullying he seems to throw on in some of his other reality programs. Is there a lot going on? Hell yes. But it's always interesting, always hilarious, and always informative. And that to be is the hallmark of a great culinary series.

Grade: A-

Hell's Kitchen (FOX)

And then there's Hell's Kitchen. What started out as a fun and fiery culinary competition series has devolved into a freak show where the contestants--cast for their oddities, eccentricities, or abrasive personalities--attempt to work on the line in a Hollywood restaurant where they are overseen and browbeaten by Ramsay himself.

What sets this program apart from the others is that the contestants usually can barely boil water much less prepare palatable food for the diners. Which is a shame as it could be a great series about life on the line but instead its become trainwreck television. Seeing Ramsay scream at someone with precious few knife skills or professional experience isn't exciting or amusing, it's downright depressing.

I watch culinary television series because I want to be dazzled by chefs' inspiration, creativity, and passion for what they do. If I felt like Ramsay were training these contestants to become professional chefs (look at Jamie Oliver's amazing docuseries Jamie's Kitchen for that instead), that would be one thing. But instead, the entire affair feels cheap and exploitative, not to mention overtly sensationalized.

There's no way that I'd go anywhere near Hell's Kitchen these days for viewing, not to mention eating. And that's a real problem for a culinary series, which should be aspirational not nauseatingly vapid. It's clear that Ramsay is playing a part here for the cameras, which is a shame when you watch F Word or Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (or its US counterpart on FOX, Kitchen Nightmares) and you see the passionate, inspirational side of Ramsay. Sadly, Hell's Kitchen makes me lose my appetite completely.

Grade: D

And there you have it. I am curious to know, however, what culinary-themed television programs you're watching. Are there any that should have been on this list? Any that you can't live without? Any that you're hungry for week after week? And which ones should be binned? Discuss.


Hadley said…
I'm so glad you mentioned the F Word! I love this show and think it's fun and interesting and informative. Plus, as you said, it shows a better side of Gordon Ramsay. Sure, he is still cocky and full of creative expletives but, unlike in Hell's Kitchen, you can see that he's really passionate about what he does and about educating the general public about food and cooking.
Lizzy D said…
Top Chef is definitely my favorite foodie show. Top Chef Masters has been enjoyable but it doesn't have quite the same impact. It's cool getting to see these famous chefs sweat under pressure but you don't really get to know them like you do with the contestants in the original series. Plus, I miss Tom!
Anonymous said…
Why the hate against Chopped?
Annie said…
Love TOP CHEF and have been enjoying TOP CHEF MASTERS a lot. Last week's ep definitely went a long way to making me like the show. But no new ep tonight????? Argh!
Mazza said…
You got me hooked on F Word so thanks for that. Top Chef is definitely the best of the bunch. Head & shoulders above the rest. Haven't seen Chopped so can't say anything about that. Kitchen Nightmares is fun. I love love Barefoot Contessa as well. :)
tamra said…
@Jace You should try to see if you could track down a copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's C4 series River Cottage (Escape to River Cottage, Return to River Cottage, River Cottage Forever) I think you would enjoy it!
Amy Beth aka Boudleaux said…
I think you are being generous giving Chopped a C+ and I would have given Hell's Kitchen a D-. That said, I watch them.

My quibble with Chopped is that they don't fully stock the pantry. Ok, I get that this is cooking under pressure and you've got to think on your feet but come on. Oh, and why do they make Ted Allen talk like that on all of his Food Network shows?
Jace Lacob said…

I've seen episodes here and there when I've been in the UK but haven't watched the three series through. Would love to check it out though!
Anonymous said…
How about MasterChef Australia?
Kelly said…
Agreed on everything you said about Top Chef. The one thing I really like about the master's version is the fact that the crowd's score gets included in the judging. It alwasy frustrated me when they would cook for a crowd and the crowd favorite would wind up in the bottom 3. It just made the judges seem really elitist some times.

Speaking of judges, the judging is making me not want to watch Chopped anymore. I enjoy the show, especially watching the contestants come up with creative dishes in respone to their challenges. But the quality of the judges is really poor. A lot of time it looks like they're just dying to find something to complain about. It really broiled me on this week's episode when the female judge berated one contestand for using an ingretident she was "very sensitive to". Well, what about the 99.99% of the population that isn't senstitive to it? If you can't be inparial in your particular likes/dislikes then you shouldn't be a judge. (Oh, and I agree totally with the previous commenter that not having enough eggs during a dessert competition is not really playing fair)

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