Thursday, January 7, 2010


Last night I watched the premier episode of "Worst Cooks in America," a new series on the Food Network. I had the odd sensation of being both appalled and amused. Here's another example of the Food Network's determination to turn food into an adolescent spectator sport. Twenty four aspirants audition to qualify in the opinion of the shows hosts, chefs Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan. They go into a kitchen to commit mayhem on a plate and then present it to the chefs for their opinions. Are we to be surprised that these desperate contenders chasing celebrity would offer chocolate pancakes without sugar, or a clueless mac and cheese consisting of cooked macaroni, and three different uncooked cheeses (including cottage) but without a sauce to tie it all together. One woman brought to them a tuna casserole and when asked if she served this to her kids, quickly assured them her kids wouldn't eat it. Twelve finalists were selected, eliminating twelve, then separated into two teams with the chefs leading each team of six. The goal will be to teach them to cook a meal that will be passed on to experts thinking it has been prepared by the two professional chefs. At stake is monetary prize and the winner's inclusion into Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame.

At least Anne Burrell has the skills to try to teach each of them about mise en place without condescension. Most of her charges are so hopelessly inept, they are not able to connect the concept to their challenge of recreating a dish (a clam and shrimp stew) she makes for them to copy. Beau MacMillan lacks Burrell's sensitivity. He simply demos his recipe (a similar but different seafood dish). He does manage to show them the intestinal track that has to be removed from the shrimp before cooking, but again, he's not helping his team connect the dots. There's not much talk of how to actually cook shrimp or clams, or being judicious when using soy sauce, or the fact that saffron is a very costly ingredient. So it comes as no surprise when some of them overcook the shrimp, or ruin their sauce by dumping too much salty soy sauce into the dish, or one of the contestants throws away a big portion of saffron (and bursts into tears when Chef Burrell brings her to tears for her lack of respect for the ingredients). How would they know? Both seem offended with splashes of sauce on the rims of the serving dishes, disfiguring the perfect restaurant appearance of the dish. They were expected to notice this. One hapless young man was so lacking in knife skills, he couldn't replicate the matchstick cuts of seaweed that Chef MacMillan used to garnish his dish. Instead, he took the roughly cut sticks and placed them in a kind of pattern on the dishes edges instead of the center of the plate. In a fit of pique, MacMillan wiped the offending garnish off the plate, saying it made him mad. I'd hate to be in his kitchen when he's really angry. One member of each team was eliminated in this hour of snickering humiliation. How the entire show wasn't eliminated in the planning stages is still bothering me.

Better the powers that be at the Food Network had watched Jamie Oliver's incredibly moving and charming 15, a series he produced about looking for young, inexperienced disadvantaged kids to teach and then help him man the kitchen of a world-class kitchen. That experiment turned out to be an emotional and rousing success. Oliver's experiment now has 15 outposts in several cities in Great Britain and Europe and Australia. Here young and equally inept kids were trained to become chefs, thereby giving them useful and productive careers. They entered the program having never eaten an oyster (the very thought of which made some of them heave). Their youthful self-absorption and ignorance was as appalling as it was amusing. But Oliver never condescended to them and often went out of his way to help them understand the mission. He was strict, demanding that they attend the classes and be serious about what they were doing. But he also gave second, third and fourth chances to several of the kids who couldn't seem to show up or take the program seriously, and he was pained by the process. His determination and support was inspiring. The kids themselves were an entertaining bunch, blunt about things they didn't like about food, and often very funny.

I could very easily see Burrell and MacMillan creating their own food school. Burrell is a talented chef with a good TV personality, and her show about cooking like a chef is an agreeable way to spend a half hour of your TV-watching time. I'm not sure I'd ever watch Beau MacMillan again. But his gruff toughness would have worked in such a program.

But the bigger question is why should we care about a show fooling a bunch of foodie types? As the pressure mounts on these contestants, they have mini-nervous breakdowns, often resorting to tears. Where's the fun in that? The only genuine moment in the show is one of the contestant's desire to be able to cook properly for her children. All the rest of it is nonsense.

When I watch a cooking show, I want to learn something, expand my skills. I still expect to entertained the way a great teacher can transport a class. Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin, Sara Moulton, Ina Garten, and the mother of them all--Julia Child, are very entertaining, inspiring cooking teachers and television personalities. But we live in a nervous era of short attention spans and a determination to cook, if we must, in 20 minutes or less.

The Food Network has tried, without success to find their own version of "Top Chef". Let me be among those who deliver to them more bad news. Keep looking.


  1. Greg, I couldn't agree with you more. Shaming hapless cooks is not entertainment. This show is trying to copy a formula that just doesn't work here. Beau MacMillan is mean and small. It might work on "What Not to Wear" but not in "Worst Cooks in America".

  2. I started watching the show...a bit too painful for me. I thought the focus of the Food Network was to give insight, encouragement, educate and entertain. They did encourage me to change the channel!

  3. I watched for about 3 minutes and switched to the Travel Channel. Maybe the cooking shows should use a few mini replays on techniques so that beginners can grasp them.