Pop Culture

Food shows keep on dishing up competitions

Food is the new fashion, at least when it comes to competitive reality television. From "Top Chef" to "Hell's Kitchen," a wide range of series have turned the kitchen into an arena.

Television has long offered programming about food, from Julia Child's first TV series, "The French Chef," in the early 1960s, to "Great Chefs" and "Yan Can Cook" in the 1980s, never mind "Iron Chef" and the entire Food Network in the 1990s.

Most cooking series, though, were about preparing food. There are still many shows that teach how to make a meal for 24 in 18 seconds or deep fry balls of dough in a healthy way, but over the past few years, prime-time TV has discovered food in a new way: the competition.

The popularity of food-related shows on cable or during the day makes sense, but the number of competitive reality shows that air during prime time, even on broadcast networks, is somewhat surprising, considering how impossible it is for viewers to judge what the contestants produce.

"American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Got Talent" are all extremely popular in no small part because viewers can so easily critique what the contestants offer. That singer sucks; that talent is awesome; the group dances on "SYTYCD" are exactly eight quintillion times more impressive than any group number "American Idol" has ever fumbled through.

Any viewer can look at a dress on "Project Runway," for example, and decide if it's high fashion or fugly, but no one at home can taste what a TV chef has created.

TV full of food reality shows
So why are competitive food reality shows multiplying? TV is full of them, from Bravo's "Top Chef" to Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef," which returns in October for its second season and is a competition to find someone to compete on yet another reality food competition.

Broadcast TV offers "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares" on Fox, and NBC tried but choked with "The Chopping Block." On cable, Bobby Flay does "Throwdown!" and also serves as a judge on "The Next Food Network Star," which is looking for exactly what its title describes. Those are two shows among the many prime-time competitions Food Network has given us, such as the forthcoming "Chefs vs. City," on which two chefs challenge local foodies, or the more serious "The Chef Jeff Project," which lets at-risk kids learn to cook and earn culinary school scholarships.

On Bravo, there's so much interest in food competitions that the network is currently airing one "Top Chef" spin-off, "Top Chef Masters," and planning another, "Top Chef Junior," even while preparing to debut the show's sixth season. (Host Padma Lakshmi is even working on a food-focused sit-com for NBC, on which she'll have a recurring role.)

And let's not forget all the ways food is used in non-food-specific competitions. While it may be offered as a reward on "Survivor" or "Big Brother," eating and sometimes even preparing strange food has provided lots of drama from "The Amazing Race" to "Fear Factor" to the first season of "Survivor," as contestants try to choke down local delicacies.

That's a lot of great food TV competition, even if it is concentrated on three networks — Food Network, Fox and Bravo.

Still, why care if you can't taste?

Viewers can judge the appearance of food, of course, and that's a key component, at least according to food competition series judges, who often evaluate how a plate is composed or presented to them. Still, their decisions are usually based upon taste, and viewers never get one.

Strong personalities rule the kitchen
What's left, then, are the people cooking and the people tasting, and that's where food competitions succeed. Maybe the proverbial heat in the kitchen is just the insane pressure of the challenges, which often test both the chefs' creativity and time management.

Food Network figured this out long ago, letting people with strong, engaging personalities demonstrate how to make food. On its fascinating competition "The Next Food Network Star," network executives serve as judges, and both Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson repeatedly talk about how likable or personable the contestants are on camera, and they sometimes eliminate people for their failure to engage viewers, not their inability to cook well.

The judges are viewers' stand-ins and are a critical part of competitions related to food, as they must articulate why something is delicious or disgusting. For the first time, two food TV judges, "Top Chef's" Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, have been nominated for an Emmy, thanks to their ability to do that well.

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Interest in watching food be prepared by understandable, engaging people goes back almost 50 years to Julia Child, who's still so fascinating that Meryl Streep will play her in the upcoming film "Julie and Julia." But that interest is taken to the next level when something is at stake, whether that's a cash prize or a job.

Nothing exemplifies the importance of personality to competitive food TV better than "Hell's Kitchen," which of all food competitions is the least about food, although it continually pretends to be. While the chefs are tested by Gordon Ramsay with cuisine-related challenges in each episode, the only real reason to watch is to see how badly they screw up during dinner service, when they serve as line cooks and Ramsay's playthings.

He screams obscenities and throws food slightly less on "Kitchen Nightmares," an Americanized version of Ramsay's UK series on which he helps rescue troubled restaurants. While the restaurants are usually at risk of financial ruin because of their awful food, it's the conflict between Ramsay and stubborn employees or owners that makes the series work.

That also explained why NBC's "The Chopping Block" stumbled: It didn't offer much in terms of watchable people, particularly host Marco Pierre White, whose condescending lectures contrasted sharply with Ramsay's screaming fits.

Food and its preparation offer compelling contests, but the most popular shows come with a side of strong personality, whether that's warm and personable or just psychotic.

is a writer, TV critic, and editor of . Follow him on or Twitter.

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