Reality TV has finally set its greedy eyes on the kitchen.
Never before have I had so many opportunities to watch chefs sweat from the comfort of my living room.
The latest entries to the fray are Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET), "Cooking Under Fire" on PBS (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET) and "The Next Food Network Star," which chooses its winner this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.
Yes, it's TV's silly season. But after watching more than my fair portion of this huge televised kitchen feast, I still feel unfulfilled.
It's worth remembering that ultimately, all cooking shows are reality shows — aside from Fox's forthcoming "Kitchen Confidential," in which Darren Star apparently transforms real-life chef Anthony Bourdain into a cardboard sitcom cut-out. (Bourdain must be laughing all the way to the bank.)
Julia Child, the Frugal Gourmet, Emeril? All reality shows, basically. And on balance, it was far more enlightening to watch Julia hack up a chicken than to see Playmates share strawberries with a swarm of fruit flies on "Fear Factor."
This new crop does have its occasional charms — so long as you don't expect to learn how to prepare anything. Since no one in America actually seems to cook anymore, perhaps that's not an issue.
The most high-pitched of the lot, Fox's summer fodder is also the most consistently entertaining. Yes, it's basically a lift of the U.K. version, but you see why chef Gordon Ramsay was a hit on British TV.
The show's endless intro puts a bit too much gloss on Ramsay's credentials, but the guy does have serious cooking chops. European chefs generally run tighter ships than we laissez-faire Americans, and Ramsay clearly earned those Michelin stars for something.
That's not to say he's fundamentally a better cook, but Ramsay brings a much-needed dose of discipline to the screen. He's unabashedly profane and obnoxious when driving his point home, leagues beyond the jive talk on "Iron Chef America" or Emeril's fist-pumping "Bam!" The show may be overly slick, but Ramsay is keeping Fox's censors on their toes.
And his motley crew makes for great fodder. One look at doughboy Dewberry ("Blueberry?" Ramsay asks) and you just know he'll be toast. Jimmy's pan-seared chicken breast? "It looks like a dehydrated camel's turd," Ramsay sneers.
And did Wendy actually say that she thinks cold water boils faster than hot?
You'd feel bad if not for one key fact: Ramsay knows any professional kitchen has its hazing rituals. He saves his worst for pros who need a good ego-lashing. Elsie, the New Jersey mom of six, gets praise for her turkey tacos. But Ramsay explodes when veteran cook Chris screws up a simple salmon order: "The ‘executive chef’ has just sent me an overcooked piece of ****."
Ramsay even lashes out at an overtanned gaggle of customers foolish enough to wander back to the kitchen. "Just ignore these bimbos," he tells his staff.
Hidden inside the kitchen mayhem are actual lessons about how restaurants truly work. The show takes time for ever-suffering maitre d' Jean Philippe to explain the finer points of service. And Ramsay knows that pressure brings out the best in a chef, so he unleashes early-morning air horns and endless drudgery on contestants who fall behind.
How appetizing? I'd devour this twice a week, and the leftovers too.
"Cooking Under Fire"You have to give PBS credit for allowing this program a bit more edge than it usually tolerates. It's paced like a network show and aside from the obvious setback of not having commercial breaks to build the tension, the story arcs are decent. It's also the most informative of the bunch. (It is PBS, after all.)
That all the contestants already cook professionally raises the show's tenor, though you do boggle when Frenchman Yannick says he's never done something as basic as making a terrine. The show presents above-average cuisine (tiger-prawn ceviche with chives), offers the most legit chef-talk and actually invokes real terms for food and wine. I've never heard "Sancerre" mentioned on TV so many times. (It's sauvignon blanc from France's Loire Valley.)
But ultimately, it's boring TV. While Todd English and Ming Tsai are big enough names in the culinary world, they never appear sure whether to teach technique or just keep us amused. I suppose the answer is both, but they don't quite accomplish either.
Plus, let's consider the show's so-called prize for a moment. Is working in one of English's kitchens a prize keenly to be sought? It's like rewarding "Survivor" winners with a stint in the Peace Corps.
How appetizing? Edible if served to you, not worth ordering off the menu.
"The Next Food Network Star"It's hard to believe the Food Network is lacking for hosts. More than 50 are currently on its roster as the network trades out seasoned kitchen hands for telegenic newcomers. (Giada, anyone?)
It's also hard to imagine any of this show's nine hopefuls adding to the talent list, though I'd put decent odds on Hans, the Georgia chef picked by online voters, who has both the necessary looks and serious cooking chops. His frittaten soup was one of the few recipes from any of these shows that actually made an impact.
"Star" only really entertains when its contestants screw up — which, to be fair, they do endlessly. Its "Idol"-style montage of videos sent in by hopefuls demonstrates two things: (1) There are good reasons to hire professional chefs as food-show hosts, and (2) a lot of freaking lunatics watch the Food Network.
There was no conceivable way the network would give the nod to mini-skirted, blonde-pigtailed Harmony (now known as "Porn Star Girl" in our household), but it was worth watching just to see Bobby Flay pay rapt attention as she fumbled her way through the kitchen. That almost made up for Susannah's painfully fake smile and endless diet-guru spiel about losing 89 pounds by eating healthy. You couldn't but crack a smile when she was forced to cook with bacon fat.
The show's most redeeming value may be how it clues in faithful viewers about the Food Network's tricks of the trade. We learn about the "swap-out," in which an on-screen chef suddenly trades in a just-started dish for a cooked, picture-perfect one. Flay lashes out at contestants for their unscripted moments of candor: "Always speak in the positive, not the negative," he says, when mushy grits are compared to phlegm.
How appetizing? Only if the fridge is empty.
What's the problem?In the words of Food Network host Marc Summers: "When you have your own cooking show, you've got to have a gimmick."
True, but Carrot Top has a gimmick. So does that crazy hippie guy on public access.
Hence the problem when reality TV enters the kitchen: Most gimmicks aren't that interesting to watch. "Hell's Kitchen" gets it, sort of; the producers know we're not watching for the food, we're watching for the schadenfreude. ("The Restaurant," by comparison, never worked because you were supposed to root for Rocco DiSpirito to succeed, and you didn't really want to.)
In the end, "Iron Chef" — the original, not the knockoff — outpaces them all. The dishes may not always be edible (even I won't touch fermented soybeans in kudzu starch jelly) but its chefs have unparalled skills, and their modesty leaves room for the rest of the show to be outrageous, right down to Chairman Kaga's Liberace-castoff outfits. (The U.S. version is ultimately felled by its stars' egos and a dearth of camp.) While it can be surprisingly educational, "Iron Chef" also pioneered the idea of cooking as true spectator sport.
Should you still have a hankering for more cooking on TV, fear not. No less a cooking diva than Martha Stewart is stepping into the fray. We're informed that she's planning a contest for her syndicated talk show featuring the "Worst Cooks in America."
I hope you've saved room. Martha's about to serve dessert.
MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné still can't figure out why William Shatner didn't remain as host of "Iron Chef America."