There’s a show on the Food Network called Worst Cooks in America that I might be a little addicted to. The participants are either nominated by their family or self-nominated, with a desire to improve from being horrible, horrible cooks. What do they mean by horrible? People who have eaten their food have had to be taken to the hospital with food poisoning. Sometimes, it would happen more than once, to family members forced to eat their cooking simply because they happen to live together.
We are not talking about preparing exotic cuisine, French, Mediterranean, or Thai food. We’re talking about being able to boil an egg. When first introduced into the Worst Cooks in America (WCIA) kitchen, the recruits who have been selected to enter this culinary boot camp usually have the deer caught in the headlights look.
“How do you turn the stove on?” asks one.
“Why doesn’t this knife cut anything?” asks another one.
“Try using the sharp side,” one of the chefs says helpfully.
The recruits are divided into two teams. One team is led by celebrity chef, Anne Burrell, a constant on the show. The other team is led by different Food Network chefs. Sometimes it’s Tyler Florence, other times it’s Robert Irvine, or Rachel Ray, and from time to time they repeat. The recruits are taught everything, from knife skills to taste combinations, from doneness of different meats and seafood to making their own pasta and cakes. One by one those who are not progressing are cut from the teams. Even the first poor schmuck to be eliminated in week one comes away with some basic cooking knowledge. The eliminations continue until each chef has only one recruit.
These last two recruits left standing have to prepare a three course meal. The professional chefs can only watch at this point, but cannot help. Then the two meals are tasted by a panel of three judges (usually either chefs, restauranteurs or other food notables) in a blind tasting. Then the winner is declared. The recruit who wins gets a check for $25,000 and the chef who guided and tutored them along the way gets the accolades and the honor of being the winner’s teacher and coach — usually Anne Burrell.
There have been special editions of this show, with actors who couldn’t cook, called WCIA: Celebrities Edition. But, the people who usually show up are just average people, most with families, who just want to be able to prepare a meal without jeopardizing the lives of people they love. And sadly, for average people, some of them are ridiculously clueless. Seriously, how can a human being not be able to read a basic recipe? This isn’t rocket surgery, this is food, something basically and fundamentally necessary for survival.
And then, inevitably, I get my mind blown yet again. Someone would say something like this, “I’ve never tasted this before.”
“You’ve never tasted fish/eggplant/mushrooms before? Not even in a restaurant?” a professional chef would ask, flabbergasted.
“No, it looked gross to me,” explains the recruit. It usually is not an exotic food they would be talking about, but an ingredient found in most pantries or refrigerators across this country. A moment of stunned silence follows this revelation, usually accompanied with a look of confusion, then it’s shrugged off, the recruit tastes the food prepared in a demonstration right in front of them, and find it delicious. But I’m left struggling with the thought that these people are not from this planet. You would have to be from somewhere not of Earth, and live in a cave there to never having tried a shrimp.
This is a light-hearted show, with little sound effects, goofy games made to introduce more unusual flavors or combinations of them to the recruits, with guests who teach and then critique dishes. The show walks a fine line between entertainment and humiliation. The premise of the show is simple: professional chefs teach “kitchen zeroes” to become “kitchen heroes.”
I am not, not by a long stretch, a great cook. I know how to make a few dishes, or improve a sauce from a jar, and at the very least I know how to make egg salad. But the ignorance of the people on the show staggers me at times. And it’s not like they don’t live in the world, some of them are professionals, such as teachers, engineers and once, a physician. The inspiring part is these people earnestly want to become better.
But in the end, watching WCIA is a tremendous ego boost. I can honestly say, “Hey, at least I am not the worst cook in this country.” But, of course, by the end, neither are they, which is why I keep watching.