YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Reality TV's main course

Cooking shows aren't just for the Food Network anymore, as network programmers serve up more series.

June 24, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

JOEY is executive chef at New York's tony Cafe des Artistes. Josh is a former Marine with a couple of years of culinary training. Julia works at a Waffle House. Five years ago, if these contestants from "Top Chef," "The Next Food Network Star" and "Hell's Kitchen," respectively, wanted to get ahead in their chosen field, they would have labored hard, got to work on time, maybe brown-nosed a bit. Also, cooking -- they maybe would have gotten better at cooking.

No more. Reality television has fast-tracked the culinary arts. More than any other profession, working with food has become a TV staple, thanks in part, of course, to the success of the Food Network but also, one presumes, to the fact that even though Americans spend less time than ever preparing food themselves, they still desire to see it prepared by others. Perhaps there is an inner gourmand in each of us that pret-a-manger food doesn't fully sate. Or perhaps watching food preparation is a childhood-memory trigger -- delicious is good, but calming is better.

Such is the take-away from "Top Chef," now in its third season on Bravo (10 p.m. Wednesdays). Dishes are displayed carefully and cleanly, like portraits of loved ones. Though in-kitchen friction is a given, it's routinely resolved, and the show has done an admirable job of focusing on food over personality. Neither of the previous winners was much of a spark plug.

Most of this season's contestants run a professional kitchen of some sort, meaning eccentricity has been largely weeded out. (Sure, two contestants have mohawks, but one's already been sent packing.) Still, a couple of vivid characters remain. Sara M., a fromagiere originally from Jamaica, has flamboyant outfits and a winning accent. Then there's Hung, an acerbic food nerd ("I'm here to prove my skills, my flavor profiles and my techniques."). Last week, he irked Joey (from Cafe des Artistes), who thought Hung stole a dish idea from him. Rightly or wrongly, more competitors bemoaned Joey's complaining than Hung's possible faux pas.

Hung is friends with last season's runner-up, the bountifully coiffed Marcel, no friend-maker himself -- he was physically assaulted on the show and also punched while at a New York bar after last season's conclusion. Last season, Marcel was able to needle even the calmest of gamers, a wild-card energy sorely lacking from this season. Everyone's so busy being competent that they almost forget why they're there: to make great television.

There's no such confusion on "The Next Food Network Star" (Sundays at 9 p.m.), in which food preparation is merely a means to an end. Also in its third season, it guarantees its winner a six-episode run of their own program on the network, more prominent placement than either HGTV's "Design Star" or ESPN's "Dream Job."

Each week, every contestant gets an individual evaluation -- a tweak that seems obvious on its face but is rarely employed by editing-conscious programs. Delivered by a pair of Food Network execs and a guest host from the channel, they're typically unsparing, more about personality concerns than food. Though the contestants must be well versed in the ways of the kitchen -- there's much discussion of radiating authority -- competent contestants are often dumped in favor of those with a magnetic camera presence.

The savviest competitors aren't surprised. Says Colombe, a health-food chef and yoga instructor, "Hopefully [the judge] sees something in me that she can package and that she can really market so that I can have my own show." Colombe recalls a young Meryl Streep, which goes a long way toward packaging when management and presentation skills suffer. Tommy, a meat-happy financial planner from Massachusetts, recalls Lenny Clarke of "Rescue Me." Amy, a French cooking-obsessed stay-at-home mom, suggests a slightly more tense Amy Brenneman.

Josh, the former Marine, doesn't have a celebrity doppelganger, but he has something better: a nickname, "JAG" (his initials), that he's already flipped into a catchphrase, "jag it up." Every time he says it, while flashing a chubby smile, cooking seems that much more relaxing. And isn't that the point?

Or, at least, shouldn't it be? You can give "Hell's Kitchen" (Fox, Mondays at 9 p.m.) credit for one food-TV innovation: It is singularly unpleasant to watch. It's not about food, and it's not really about contestant strategy. Mainly, it's about emotional violence. Participants are corralled to work for abrasive British chef Gordon Ramsay. They attempt to make seemingly simple dishes. They routinely fail. Then they're yelled at. Each week one contestant is set free from this prison of ridiculous expectations. Those who display uncommon gifts of masochism -- this is the second season in a row in which a contestant has found himself at the hospital because of show-related stress -- inch closer toward victory.

If you can't stand the heat

Los Angeles Times Articles