Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Food TV: Different shows, different flavor profiles

It's true that there's no shortage of cooking shows out there this summer. The third seasons of Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and The Next Food Network Star are all airing now, and, if you've seen them, you know that there's no way you could confuse them if you happened to catch just the tiniest snippet of them while channel-surfing. Because aside from the clear differences – Hell's Kitchen's Mr. Obvious narrator, the Graphics That Spell Check Forgot on Top Chef, and the cute little star graphics on The Next Food Network Star – and the fact that they all claim to be looking for the next great chef, they all test very different chefly abilities.

Maybe I've just become more appreciative of what happens in a restaurant kitchen since seeing Ratatouille – not that I'm saying that's the definitive word on the subject – but here's how I see them. Each has its own specialty, and is searching for a specific quality from its contestants. Top Chef is all about creation and innovation. The chefs create dishes using exotic ingredients or by putting a twist on an old standard. Hell's Kitchen is about working in a kitchen. Communication, pushing out dishes, doing prep work, et cetera. For the most part, Chef Ramsay doesn't care if you can create. He wants to know if you can do, and if you can cry, that's just a bonus. For The Next Food Network Star, it's about selling your dish, and yourself. Those chefs get to create dishes too, but mostly the judges want to know how you'll come across on TV, and whether you can refrain from calling Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins "Chocolate Passion," as one hapless contestant did.

None of the shows is looking for a great all-around chef, then; one who can thrive in a restaurant kitchen and create innovative new flavors (although, ironically, the overwrought Hell's Kitchen may come closest). So let's say, for fun, that you threw the winners of all three shows into Kitchen Stadium for an ultimate cooking fight. Who would come out on top? If it's strictly based on cooking, the winners of Top Chef would have the edge, but if it's testing ability under pressure, or if it all suddenly turns into a knife fight, don't count out the winners of Hell's Kitchen.


Liz said...

I gotta say, though, that it seems like the contestants on Top Chef are a giant head and shoulders above the contestants on the other shows, in terms of cooking ability. Can you imagine anyone on Top Chef trying to serve a single, bone-dry duck? Or fishing food out of the trash and plating it? Plus, I think Tiffani would hold her own in a knife fight! Could be, though, that Hell's Kitchen prevents its contestants from really showcasing their true ability by virtue of the impossible circumstances.