Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bad Game

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?


Bob said...

Looks like the secret ingredient is cheesecake.

Frodnesor said...

I'm sorry, were you saying something? I couldn't follow you, was distracted by the picture.

Arundathi said...

Just try to forget that she was married to Rushdie when you watch PL in the Hardee commercial!!

Lou said...

Warning: cynical opinion ahead.

In my view, the baseline purpose of all professional cooking is to make money. If it provides nutrition to others in an aesthetically pleasing form, all the better.

Isn't the entire point of professional cooking to sell food for more than you paid for it?

The baseline purpose of the home cook is to provide nutritious, appealing food.

ntsc said...

I've no real idea who she is but it served its purpose of getting my attention. And if Rushdie was married to her, good. I bought Satanic Verses only because of the fatwa and it was how I could show support.

I have no idea about Doctors, but engineers have contests. Watching an engineer with experience getting tromped in the West Point Bridge Building Contest is unsettling, especially as the competition was 12 with red hair, freckles and a girl.

Exactly what are the Chef professional titles if not a contest? Ruhlman turned one into a good book.

Emril turns out good food, I've eaten at Commanders Palace when he was in the kitchen. I'm never going to match him, but what exactly is wrong with him making a buck off his skills and entertainment? I make a number of things from his show, including my own mustards.

I read your blog because it is entertainment, should you stop doing it?

craigkite said...

Some would say sex is for procreation, not entertainment. Humans are a tad more complex, and since we discovered laughter, surprise and anger, most EVERYTHING is for entertainment. I feel you may be too close to the subject to appreciate its entertainment value. Does an Ob/Gyn value porn as much as a layman? I see your point, but disagree. If it were JUST nutrition that we were getting out of a professionally cooked meal, we would stay home and graze out of the fridge and pantry. Culinary arts supposedly stimulate ALL of our senses. It also stimulates our perceptions: humor, irony and schadenfreude.
Now get your ass back in the kitchen and cook us something, in just five minutes, using only three ingredients and a crack pipe.

Bob del Grosso said...

Please let me clarify my position here. I am not opposed to contests between professionals, but I do think these shows suck because they turn what I believe should be a the dignified pursuit of excellence of craft into minstrel shows.

Finally, I erred when I wrote that the primary purpose of professional cooking is to provide nutrition and an aesthetically pleasing experience to ones customers. What I should have written is that I believe that this is the primary purpose.

Obviously not everyone shares my beliefs, nor would I expect them to do so.

I also believe that the primary purpose of home cooking and professional cooking are the same. I make no distinction.

BTW Ruhlman wrote about the test for Certified Master Chef. The CMC exam is a test, not a contest. If one thinks of the people who pass as winners and those who fail as losers then that's a judgment that you are placing on them and not the way that the examiners and test takers think about it.

I've taken similar tests, and never thought of them as contests. They have more in common with lab practicals than baseball games.

ntsc said...

I understand your point about exam vs contest, however I have trouble with seeing a timed mystery basket as other than a contest.

I suppose it does come as close as possible to dealing with a disaster, but is that the purpose?

Personally I've always approached exams as something to be subdued, a contest between me and the writer/creater of the exam.

blondee47 said...

If I may go one step further and highlight Top Chef.

It is unfortunate that Ms Lakshmi, host of Top Chef, was guided towards the commercial work and print work that leads her to a more promiscuous profile professionally, but it is just that.

It would be prudent for those involved to think long and hard about the future of Top Chef concerning what its content should represent in the future and should she retain her role as host. She has become a sexual joke to all women in the cooking world, not to just the female viewers.

The ideology and creed of Top Chef might change into a reality show with distinct undertones of sexuality and subliminal sexually graphic thoughts on the part of the viewers.

I can't imagine she will she be thought of as a host representative of the professional standards of the cooking industry including the restaurant industry and those judges who appear.

I surmise Top Chef regards itself as such.

Padma's beauty and charisma always highlighted the work on screen, instigating the male attentiveness; that balancing act being very difficult to create successfully, which she did for all prior seasons. Why in the world would she choose a path without thought to the future of Top Chef and the notice it has brought to her?

Aww got that off my chest

Crazy Raven Productions said...

My problem with the cooking shows is the same as my problem with all reality shows: the popularity contest elements, the demeaning of oneself personally with pitted battles of psychological sabotage.

I love the cooking challenge portions... you get a group of very creative, very talented chefs together and give them a task with various limitations, and genuinely interesting stuff results. It's an intellectual and technical challenge, and I think any professional with a sense of adventure and fun would enjoy that element now and again. Hell, I love doing stuff like that with my own work in machinema animation and writing... 50 word stories, finding new ways to make characters do what I want them to do within the confines of available programming materials...it's fun and very satisfying.

It's the forcing these people to live together and snark against each other and generally act like the worse parts of high school that bugs me.

Walt said...


Nice sh*t storm!

I'm with you that reality shows serve mostly as a vehicle to demean the contestants. And I'm certainly am no fan of ubiquitous and formulaic style "recipe shows".

That being said, as an adventurous home cook, I do find inspiration in the creativity on display in some of these shows. Living in a area with few very creative Chefs to visit, these shows (and your blog)are some of the few places I can find such inspiration.

I love Top Chef for the food not for the drama; and certainly not for the caricature Padma Lakshi has become.

I don't favor the cynical judging on Chopped(or the manufactured product either)but my nine year old daughter has me freeze the screen for each ingredient unveiling while she tells me what she would make. It's also pretty cool that she sees how some of these crap products they use make crap food.

I guess we'll have to disagree in that I think "some" good can be found in "some" of these shows. We just need to pay attention long enough to find it.

James said...

I agree totally. Reducing cooking to some half ass 'competition' takes all the joy out of the creative process that is cooking. I hate the fact that worthwhile shows where you actually learn something have been replaced by these ridiculous pieces of crap.

s. stockwell said...

It's all such theatre and totally rigged? Padma is, however a complete dish. tv is such a wasteland anyway. almost like going into a coma and not caring much what is on? The worst is how overtly punishing our entire society has become. Everyone is a critic and each tiny flaw must be put under the microscope?

Chefs know that PR is the oil that greases the engine, that's all and when you look up close you can see they don't really take it seriosly...your blog is hot! best from santa barbara. s


Sarah said...

I don't have too much to say about food shows, it's all about rating and publicity. For that they need enticing names, pseudo drama, theatrics, competition and all that silliness. That said, there can be entertaining and interesting snippets of food shows, no? It's not only food shows as Stockwell points out, it is all TV, even national geographic (all they broadcast is shark, lion and killer bee attacks). There should be a slow TV movement. BTW, can I borrow that picture, I think it might be good for my blog traffic?:-)

Lou said...

I believe you made this point early on, and I misunderstood:

"I also believe that the primary purpose of home cooking and professional cooking are the same. I make no distinction."

I'm a tech writer, and I do that to make a living, but my primary purpose is to convey ideas with what I write, whether professionally or personally. As with cooking, I have varying degrees of success.

As far as cooking contest shows are concerned, I don't much like them, but there is no "Iron Technical Writer", and there are no pictures of naked technical writers or judges; it would not be pretty.

Bob del Grosso said...

Points well taken. These shows are all part of the reality TV phenom which ironically has about as much to do with the real life as Sponge Bob does. I suppose there are some things of value to be pulled from the grease trap that these shows collectively represent, but what there is is about human nature, not cooking.

Sarah said...

true, the only problem I have is that the young generation take them much to seriously.

tyronebcookin said...

I mostly just view these shows as another show to be compared with daytime 'soaps'.

So after the first season of most of the ones Bob listed here I say there's nothing there to be learned, or appreciated. Its just another night-time drama opera...so since its not even remotely entertaining or usefull I went back to watching Diners, Drive-ins, & DIves...(shockingly on Food Network! shhh, tell no one) and No Reservations w/Anthony B. on the Travel Channel.

THAT at least is comedy that sometimes makes me hungery - thats more than Hell's Kitchen ever did for me!

Jennie/Tikka said...

The problem, in my opinion, with these shows is that when I get into a conversation and say I cook professionally everyone automatically bases what they think I mean by that by what they've seen on these t.v. shows. Given the situation, I may or may not have time to explain how these shows give a false impression of the real world of cooking.

The first thing anyone wants to ask is "Are those shows what it's really like??" And of course I have to answer "no" every single time because no - they aren't.

In the real world they DON'T want to send somebody home in the middle of service, and then do it again the next night for minor failures -because that would increase everybody's work load.

In the real world if somebody's f'ing up the line you can always just pull them off and put them in the pantry or something. You don't want to fire unless you absolutely have to.

I'm still confused as to what exactly qualifies Padma to judge anyone's cooking at all, at any level. Is she even qualified to judge at a local County Fair????

James said...

remember tv is there to sell you things.......not for you to someday be on......jd

seriousdarious said...

I hear where you're coming from. I don't really watch any of the "reality tv" cooking shows so I can't comment on those. That being said, I have to defend the original Iron Chef. Yes there was a (huge) element of theater to it, but there is an element of theater in all fine dining, whether it's as simple as the kitchen paying attention to the plating or as complex as putting smoking wood-chips on the plate and covering the whole with a cloche so that your first experience of the dish is seeing and smelling a puff of smoke. But as a home cook with little formal training and little experience dining at high-end restaurants the original Iron Chef opened my eyes to a whole world of ingredients, techniques and ways of thinking about cooking that I didn't know existed. I'll never be able to match what was produced on that show but now that I know these things exist my technique has improved and I have something to strive for. I just started reading your blog (I found you via Ruhlman), but it looks good so far. Thanks.