[5 November 2009]
By the time you’re reading this, Holly Smith has been eliminated from contention in the second season of Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef. That’s a shame, but also a bit on the predictable side. I say this not as a reflection on Smith’s skill as a cook: The winner of numerous accolades including the 2008 James Beard Foundations’s Best Chef Northwest, Smith doesn’t need me to talk about what a fine cook she is—her resume speaks for itself. In the short time I spent talking to her, it became clear that Smith was a really nice person who took food astonishingly seriously and has a passion for helping people understand what they were eating better. You can hear this passion when I ask her if sustainable food is just just another Atkins diet—a flash in the pan that quickly changes the way we eat, for a while, but not over the long haul.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a pendulum swing that’s going to take 20 years to really change,” Smith says. “How we eat is not sustainable. People go to farmers markets now, and that’s great. But we need to have a more European approach, where people understand GMOs and how much we’re paying for corn subsidies.” It’s a statement that simultaneously demonstrates faith in her fellow man as well as an understanding of just how much food culture needs to change in this country and a decent idea of how to do that. These are admirable qualities. They are qualities that are traditionally valued in television chefs. But they are not qualities that serve one well on The Next Iron Chef. Because, it’s presence on the Food Network aside, The Next Iron Chef has almost nothing to do with food.
Any number of shows on the Food Channel and similar lifestyle networks depend on the notion that their viewers want to make the food they see being made on TV, that they are in some way participants in the programming. Cooking shows from the time of Julia Child and Jeff Smith existed for that reason, to bring viewers into the creative process, and also because everyone is occasionally in the mood to watch Graham Kerr get snookered on cooking wine and make off color jokes on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But even in this simple, often enormously entertaining act, they created community. Community is one of those things that is underrated but phenomenally important in restaurant work.
If you’re looking for a microcosm of a society run efficiently—not beautifully, perhaps, and sometimes not altogether pleasantly, but effectively—look to a well-run kitchen. And in the best kitchens, like the one at Café Juanita in Kirkland, WA, where Smith holds court, this community goes beyond just the kitchen and goes beyond just efficiency. “I’m constantly blown away by how amazing my guests are, and the community that’s grown up around Café Juanita, and how the staff hangs onto each other,” says Smith. “It’s not just a business, it’s my life.” The best restaurants—not the Zagat rated gourmet joints, but the ones you remember, the ones that get their hooks in you for a late brunch every weekend or a plate of fries and a beer after work—are like families. And it’s this sense of community that the best cooking shows strive to recreate.
The Next Iron Chef seems to be built on the premise of its progenitor—i.e., that watching people cook is, in and of itself, an entertaining proposition. Of course, there’s a problem with that premise, and it’s this; generally speaking, watching people cook is not fun. Watching people cook, even cook really great food, is not particularly interesting. That’s why traditional cooking shows try to be educational—they strive to engage the audience in the act of creation, to show how any schmuck with a saucepan, some patience and a little hard work can make a tasty chicken. Shows about cooking classically strive for more interaction than is par for the course in watching TV. The Next Iron Chef does not make this attempt to engage viewers. Audiences are not assumed to be taking notes or getting an education in food from watching The Next Iron Chef. Whereas food on cooking shows is usually a product of the format, in The Next Iron Chef, it acts as a catalyst instead. In Kitchen Stadium, the preparation of food is not a creative process but a martial one, rendering cooking on Iron Chef an activity more akin to sport than art.
Like Bravo’s Top Chef, from which it borrows much, both thematically and mechanically, The Next Iron Chef is not a show about cooking. It is a show about people freaking out; cooking just happens to be what they’re doing while they’re freaking out. “You sign up knowing your going into an unknown situation, and you’re hopefully as prepared as you can be to react to what comes,” says Smith of the show’s format. “The quest in this is to maintain your vision despite what is happening around you.”
This format, of course, has its advantages. Watching people freak out is, generally speaking, a reasonably entertaining prospect. In forcing it’s contestants to deal with not only unfamiliar ingredients and arbitrary, ruthlessly enforced deadlines, Iron Chef has always been a pressure cooker. But the producers have amped things up to 11 by adding the survivor style elimination rounds, placing every contestant in a kitchen with eight other people who want them to fail. These are obviously uncomfortable, unstable people, who often do not like each other and who all have large, sharp knives.
In watching chefs at the top of their game craft dishes that put pretty much anything you’ve ever cooked to shame, The Next Iron Chef becomes an almost Brechtian cooking experiment. It is designed to alienate the audience, to tell them, over and over again, in the loudest voice it can summon “You cannot do this.” Where the TV cooks of yore—gourmets all, whether galloping or frugal—invited us into their kitchens to participate, The Next Iron Chef invite us in only to observe. Viewers are not supposed to look at a person preparing a stew of fermented tofu and beans or making pasta from unborn eggs and think, “Oh, that would be good for dinner next week” anymore than they are supposed to watch Peyton Manning loft a pass right into Reggie Wayne’s outstretched hands and think “Yeah, I could do that.” The whole point is that you couldn’t do that, because the people doing these things are on TV for one reason—they are much better at doing what they do than anyone else on the planet. You could practice your whole life and never come close to being half as good as these contestants.
Rather than make the kitchen a place of belonging, The Next Iron Chef turns it into a place where only the finest are welcomed. This sensation is driven home by the competitors themselves, who know that no matter how much they may like another person, they are in a room full of enemies. The competitive edge of the original Iron Chef is taken over the top here. Taking another cue from Top Chef, the show often sees genuine competition is replaced with enmity between large personalities. I’ll leave you to decide if that makes better TV or not. What doesn’t make for great TV is not quite watching eight people cook. With more ground to cover and more chefs to talk to, there is no chance for host Alton Brown to really explore the nuances of every dish, to really discuss what’s being done with a competitor or to translate this information for viewers as he’s proven so capable of in the past. With so many chefs cooking under such high pressure, the food preparation portion of the show can actually become stressful for an audience, feeling like nothing so much as watching pornography in fast forward—sure, everything looks interesting, and there are some things you might want to try at some point, but who can keep up?
In our interview, Smith had praise for Food Network and the way that it brings food awareness into the American living room and the contributions that it makes to furthering conversations about consumption and sustainability, conversations that are more important now than ever. “The Food Network is doing a great thing in bringing a love of food and an interest in it to the viewers,” Smith says. “I’ve had so many people who come in to the restaurant who say ‘My seven-year-old cooks dinner once a week and they’re a rabid Food Network fan.’” And there are shows that have what Smith calls “a lot of potential for broadening horizons” in the ways we think about what we eat. One hopes to see her on one of them one day, because both parties would be well served by it. But with it’s interests lying more in manufactured drama and carefully manipulated craziness than in, well, food, The Next Iron Chef is a far cry from one of those shows.