[4 January 2010]
Most of us realize we don’t have the talent to make it on American Idol or Top Chef, or the fortitude to live in the swamps of some tropical island or fight off 20 rivals for a brief engagement to some gorgeous bachelor(ette). But we also know that lack of ability doesn’t have to mean lack of exposure: we’ve seen the audition episodes for Idol.
Now, the Food Network has come up with a contest where such lack is the point. As its title announces, Worst Cooks in America seeks out the most incompetent people in the kitchen. But the stated goal is their improvement—in 10 days. The premiere, which aired Sunday, 3 January (the episode repeats throughout the week), followed the typical audition format, open calls held across the country, in this case for bad cooks preparing their most awful dishes for judges. From these, 24 were selected for tutelage under two hosts/judges, chefs Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan.
Worst Cooks proceeded as you’d expect. Once they arrived in New York, contestants were given a challenge, the worst were sent home, everybody quivered in fear. Viewers were also introduced to the competitors, whose most often-cited reason for participating was that no one they know will eat the meals they prepare.
For all this predictability, the show possesses a comic element missing in many reality contests, because these players are truly clueless. For their first challenge, they were asked to make a “signature dish” that represents their ineptitude. Credit has to be given to the two judges for showing courage as they ate the frightening food placed before them, and indeed, they spit out more than a few mouthfuls. (The meat and sweet potato loaf looked particularly nauseating.) During the first episode, 12 contestants were instantly cut, because their dishes just weren’t bad enough.
The remaining 12 have a shot at the finals and the $25,000 prize (paltry, by reality show standards). Burrell and MacMillan picked teams for each other, with the goal of giving the worst cooks to the other chef. Under their professional mentors, the contestants will now spend days preparing a series of complex dishes. The final two standing will prepare dinner for a panel of New York food critics.
The show sets up the competitors to fail. The “training” they’re supposed to receive is laughable. In the premiere episode, the chefs merely showed their students how to make an intricate seafood dish, then the students had to duplicate it. Burrell was a little better at explaining terms and keeping a positive tone, but neither expert started at the beginning, say, the fundamentals of cooking. It’s like expecting the illiterate to start learning to read with James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Once the new cooks began working, the chefs did nothing to help or teach, but instead only commented on what was going wrong. A brief discussion of sanitation could have been a good starting point. And, considering the cooks are called on to work with knives and cooking with hot oils and sauces, some basic safety tips would have been appropriate. One woman threw a hot pan of oil under cold water, luckily avoiding serious steam burns, but MacMillan only noted the smoke in the kitchen.
The first challenge involved complicated cooking skills. MacMillan had his team slicing thin strips out of Nori paper (again, knife skills). Surprisingly, both chefs were rather complimentary, but honest, in the taste-off; if only they could be this encouraging throughout the process. As in the audition episodes for Idol or America’s Got Talent, hopefuls are asked to make fools of themselves and put up with snarky comments from the judges. The “worst cooks,” however, realize they’re bad at what they do, and seek help. In the end, the winner may be 25K richer, but it’s doubtful that anyone will come away with more than minor mastery of a few dishes.