Reality TV sucks. It’s garbage. Two notable exceptions are sports, which is about as real as it gets, because reality unfolds as the game progresses, and the cooking shows.
I enjoy watching sports. Specifically, I love tennis, basketball, spelling bees and hockey. I was raised in the Soviet Union, so I grew up playing hockey as well as watching it. Forty years ago, in the soccer field out behind my grandparent’s apartment, all we had to do in the winter was put enough water down on the ground — flooding the field — and it became our hockey rink. It was a matter of pride to be “kissed” by a hockey puck. I got “kissed” on the forehead, which left a goose-egg, but no permanent damage.
But, even more than live sports, I love watching the cooking shows — love them beyond measure. Not those fluff pieces where the cooks travel to exotic locals and eat delicious foods while I sit on my ass and salivate. That’s torture. (Except for Anthony Bourdain, because he was himself.) No, I want to watch chefs either teach me how to prepare dishes, or watch chefs compete with each other against the clock — again, another form of sport.
I remember when I first started to appreciate cooking shows. It was 18 years ago, watching Alton Brown prepare food. His show was called Good Eats, and he delved deeply into not only the ingredients, and the cooking methods, but what was going on inside the food — how it was being transformed by catalysts and reactions.
“You gotta watch this guy, he’s amazing,” I told Jeff. Jeff wasn’t impressed, at first. It took him a few episodes to feel like I do about Mr. Brown, but he finally got into the show — the undeniable appeal of a nerd who is passionate about the marriage of food and science and has a great sense of humor in the blending of the two. I watched him blind me with science and thought that he did indeed look a lot like Thomas Dolby.
But it took both of us no time at all to fall in love with the weirdness that was the original Iron Chef, the Japanese export. This was the first competition show I saw on the Food Network. It was oddly hilarious due to the vast cultural divide and how utterly serious they took the action that was transpiring in “Kitchen Stadium.” It was magnificently ceremonial. The extravaganza! The set! The secret, expensive ingredients such as lobster, truffles or Kobe beef! The glittering clothing the Chairman wore! The overly enthusiastic, yet polite, judges running the gamut from foodies to actors to psychics. And their tasting of exquisite dishes, described by the chefs in an enticing manner made my mouth water.
And, then came Chopped, which, in my opinion, is the reigning champion of cooking shows. It combines all that is glorious in sport and cooking competitions. Each episode starts with four competitors who often begin by strutting and bragging like fully-dressed Conor McGregors. They boast of their chef-y accomplishments, their kitchen cred, saying why they will win and what the other competitors should be a fearing. But the truth, the simple, unvarnished truth is, and has been for more than a decade, that it’s not chef against chef. All of the chefs that participate are tremendous and can coax great flavors from some strange ingredients. The battle was, and is, against the clock and their own imagination. They have to figure out how to combine the bizarre and exotic basket ingredients (kept a secret until the last second), disguise them when they are nasty, but not too much, transform them, and make them taste delicious and unified on a plate. An these are the ingredients such as snakes, goats’ heads, duck tongues, geoduck clams and giant jawbreaker candies (that last one wouldn’t be so bad in the dessert round, but is a killer in the appetizer round).
The chefs have twenty minutes in the first round (the appetizer), thirty minutes in the second round (the main course), and thirty minutes in the third round (the dessert).
By the end of the show, those left standing are humbled, brought down by the talent of the fellow competitors and by the relentless clock. We watch and judge at home by what dishes looked delicious, and by which chef was the most likeable (the least arrogant).
But I will share something else, something that made these cooking shows so much more dear to me than just places to watch people cook and compete. On 9/11 and the days that followed, it was the Food Network that helped me keep my sanity and stay positive. When every other channel was showing the inescapable images of the planes flying into the World Trade Centers over and over and over again, these cooking shows just showed cooking. And for that alone, my gratitude is never ending. For that, and some incredible recipes and cooking tips I picked up through the many years of being a loyal viewer, I say, “Thank you, Food Network.”