[3 April 2012]
On the lush Caribbean island of Dominica, three gourmet chefs repel down a sheer cliff face above churning ocean surf. The start of a globe-spanning culinary competition awaits them at the base, during which they will dig, harvest, hunt, fish, and cook their way towards that ever-amusing prize of “bragging rights” as the world’s most ruggedly adaptable chef. Amidst the competitive clichés, exaggerated misery, and paternalistic respect for the food traditions of the native peoples of their exotic sporting grounds, these elite chefs might even learn something new about cooking, and we at home might even be entertained by that process.
If this program sounds like a cross between Survivor and Chopped, that’s because it pretty much is. BBC America’s No Kitchen Required stems from the creative collaboration of a producer from each show, and repeats many of the dominant tropes of both.
Its contestants include two of Chopped‘s mainstays, Judge Michael Psilakis, the acclaimed Greek-American chef and restaurateur, as well as the first Grand Champion of its kitchen-bound contest, British-Jamaican chef Madison Cowan. No Kitchen Required’s third running contestant is Kayne Raymond, a New Zealand-born private chef who looks the part of the outdoorsman much more so than his friendly rivals do. British health show host Dr. Shini Somara acts as master of ceremonies, and for her patients’ sake, one hopes that her bedside manner is superior to her presentation abilities.
The nature of the contest, as the title implies, leaves little time for the type of soft-focus food porn that was once the Food Network’s core appeal. Instead, No Kitchen Required focuses on the sweaty straining of its combatants’ culinary abilities. This has become the dominant mode of food programming following the success of the Iron Chef franchise, refiguring cuisine for television audiences as a borderline-dangerous combat. Such frenzy approximates a high pressure restaurant’s reality, as opposed to the seeming fiction of the classic cooking demonstration show’s intimate domestic art form.
This shift has to do with personality as much as cooking. Chefs no longer need to be outsized characters like Julia Child or Emeril Lagasse; robust culinary skills are now basically enough, and sometimes not even necessary (witness the current Food Network hit, Worst Cooks in America, for an example). In No Kitchen Required’s premiere episode, such skills are on vivid display, even as the personalities fall short. The chefs’ first challenge is to dig up yams from the earth in the jungle, and no amount of pulse-pounding music or dramatic crosscutting among colorful tropical locations can make this task look interesting.
The exit interviews that are intercut with the “action” don’t help much. The earnest Psilakis, who despite earning a coveted Michelin Star for his culinary prowess is forever the chef who looks like Iron Chef America’s Michael Symon, has particular trouble. He describes the task as digging up a couple of yams, going down the hill a bit, and then digging up another yam. Riveting stuff, indeed. Accounts of subsequent fishing and hunting expeditions to acquire proteins are similarly lackluster, although Cowan expresses some amusing disgust while tracking a jungle opossum called a manicou that is considered a delicacy by the local Kalinago community.
The interactions between the chefs and the Kalinago do provide some points of interest, proving for the millionth time that food remains the best focal point for productive exchange between disparate cultures that humans have at their disposal. Casting tribal elders as judges rendering a verdict on the chefs’ twists on traditional local fare is a stroke of mild inspiration, emphasizing cultural gaps. The elders’ reactions are expressive and unguarded when compared with the scrubbed and modulated stage personas of the chefs. This is especially true when they are served unfamiliar, fashionable dishes like the crayfish ceviche that Raymond whips up for them. The elders demand more spice in nearly everything.
The key portion of the Dominica episode, though, is the timed food preparation segment. Conducted in the open air on a beach, this particular challenge does not have the full cooperation of the elements. A bit of a tropical storm moves in, buffeting the frustrated chefs with wind and rain and throwing their culinary precision into chaos. The full potential of No Kitchen Required is achieved in this sequence, as consummate professionals in the upper echelons of their field are deprived of their usual controlled conditions and scramble to execute their art with their usual proficiency. Take the chefs out of the kitchen, this show argues, and they feel even more heat.