Padma Lakshmi, game show referee
For once I will not mince words and say exactly how I feel about television shows that present cooking as a competitive sport: I hate them, they suck.
Top Chef, Iron Chef, The Next Iron Chef can all metaphorically burn in Hell’s Kitchen and their ashes scattered across the field that holds the bones of similarly inane cooking shows like The Galloping Gourmet and Emeril’s Kitchen.
There are lots of reasons why I don’t like the idea of "cooking as contest". But the bottom line is I believe that cooking for a medal or prize money is contrary to what professional cooking is fundamentally about.
In my view, the baseline purpose of all professional cooking is to provide nutrition to others in an aesthetically pleasing form. If high income is generated along the way, or one becomes famous for the rare aesthetic value of her work, all the better, but entertainment (which is the primary purpose of all of these shows that pit chefs against each other) should never be thought of as anything more than an unintended coincidence.
Of course, the environment within a kitchen can be competitive, and it can be healthy for cooks to compete with one another to see who can do the best work in the least amount of time. But I think it is not only silly to turn a process whose fundamental purpose is to keep others alive and edified in art into the culinary equivalent of a boxing match, it also degrades the profession.
Surgeons and dentists are charged with a job that is similar to that of professional cooks and understand that their fundamental job is to attend to the health of their patients in manner that assures their survival and sense of “well being.” Yet there is no reality TV show where teams of heart surgeons compete against a clock to replace heart valves or a contest where dentists perform root canals while being judged on the aesthetic value of their work.
I’m sure there are many reasons why there is nothing on TV called “Iron Thoracic Surgeon” or “Hell’s Dental Chair,” and one of them has to be that most doctors understand that participating in such things is undignified and would lower the public’s opinion of their profession. So why are there so many chefs willing to risk appearing as if the most important thing in the world was winning a game?