On the Disturbing Disaster Pornography That Is 'Knife Fight'
Watching the Esquire television network's food show brings to mind how Jean Baudrillard was so right about the ugliness in our reflections of reality.
When Knife Fight was announced as one of the first shows to be piloted for the Esquire television network, I was psyched for many reasons. First, I'm a long time subscriber to Esquire magazine, and was glad to see that the televised wing of the brand would have a food-focused feather in its cap. Then they said that Drew Barrymore signed on as an executive producer, and that seemed to bode very well, too. Barrymore’s production choices, from Donnie Darko to Whip It!, have been full of her stand-out attitude and delightfully good at filling their niches. Then it was announced that the show would be helmed by Ilan Hall, a Top Chef winner and chef of the Gorbals restaurant.
I’d heard some good stuff about eclecticism at the Gorbals, but it was in Los Angeles and I just one of those people who thinks the world revolves around New York. It’s very hard to get me to LA, no matter how great the food might be there. So I didn’t really look into Hall’s work or reputation. I thought it best to just watch the show, let it speak for itself, and see if it could keep pace with all the rest that I love about Esquire and Barrymore. In the first season of the show, I was mightily impressed.
There are a few aspects of Knife Fight’s first season that really stuck with me. First of all, the kitchen at the Gorbals was a fickle mistress. Sometimes the stoves would stutter a bit in pre-heating. Sometimes the pressure cookers were too dented and janky to open on command and food would get stuck in there for a couple extra intense minutes. On the back kitchen shelves, you could find a bunch of weird, interesting stuff, but sometimes the chefs couldn’t find rice, or salt, or other foundational necessities upon which whole dishes were predicated. It was a real restaurant kitchen, complete with tricks that only the Fonz could handle. Dishes sometimes went awry or had to be scrapped altogether for realistic reasons.
Another thing I loved about the early days of Knife Fight was that it put competition in all the right places. It paired chefs who once worked together and asked whether the student could become the master. It paired two chefs from the same city, or whose cooking styles show parallel regional influences, and asked who was truly top in particular fields. It paired young upstarts with establishment chefs and asked whether innovation or tradition was the stuff of which delicious food is made. Sometimes it included sous chefs alongside the main contestants and asked about the value of partnership and communication in the kitchen. Sometimes it included a surprise tie-breaker, sudden-death round at the end, which highlighted both the ongoing difficulty and the utter arbitrariness of trying to judge a food competition.
Seasons one and two were unbracketed. You could tune in to each episode and at the end, it ended. There was no suspense between episodes, and if they built up in my DVR for a few weeks, I could watch them in any order that suited me without fear of spoilers, or confusion about who was advancing to the next round to defeat some other winner from an episode I had not yet seen. In an hour of television, there was a winner who walked away with a big knife and a loser who walked away with a little one. There were no grande finalés, no sweeps weeks shenanigans, no surprisingly daring changes to make suddenly more challenging rules.
The show was a satisfyingly tight package that relied on the competitive nature of the chefs’ personalities themselves, compounded by simple kitchen pressures like the forward march of time and misbehaving kitchen appliances that were completely true to actual restaurant life. Hall presided over this terrific show with the confidence of somebody who had been there in those dilemmas himself, displaying a thoughtfulness that was unpretentious and a love of food sport that was not predicated on the ridiculous manufacture of needless complex additional obstacles. The show was not about manufacturing a fresh round of celebrity chefs and was refreshingly free of any type of reality television tropes invented to serve publicists, advertisers, or ratings.
Knife Fight, in short, was man at his best. Indeed, “Celebrating Man at his Best” is the slogan of Equire’s television network. Knife Fight was in keeping with the magazine’s tradition of culturally current, tonally sophisticated, remarkably approachable educational tools for the betterment of its audience. The first two season were also satisfying lengthy, delivering 18 episodes for the first season and a ripe 24 the second. And then came season three, which is where our trouble begins.
In the 13 episodes of season three, there are 14 proteins featured as ingredients the chefs must use to make their dishes. Of those 14 proteins, four of them were live and two of them were whole. On a food show, the purpose of live ingredients is quite clear. The televised butchery of animals is always messy and awkward at best. At worst, it can be violent, cruel and disgusting. The cringe-worthy pathos of on-air butchery is a straightforward ploy to increase viewership and ratings, which in turn boosts advertisers' interest and, by the law of supply and demand, commercial rates. This ultimately translates into profit for the show and for the network.
The human investment in watching live animals killed on television is what French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard would call disaster pornography. Season three’s first episode begins with live lobster. That seems pretty normal, right? You can indeed go to a fancy surf and turf place and pick out your own lobster from the tank. But they don’t murder it at your table. Most often, those lobsters are thrown alive into a boiling pot of water. No big deal, right? I'm a fierce carnivore and not at all squeamish about the thought of lobsters being burned alive. But after a while, Baudrillard argues that our commitment to disaster porn deepens as we grow more callously indifferent toward images of the carnage of these disasters.
Subsequent episodes in season three involved frogs and turtles. There was some blood. There were some legs kicking and twitching for several minutes after they had been severed from the animal’s body. Then came the live snapping turtles because at some point, Knife Fight’s show runners decided the chefs needed to feel afraid. Butchering a frog is a delicate pain in the butt, but it’s still a fairly common food item and is nothing to fear in terms of the knife skills involved. Any chef should have been trained how to properly butcher a frog. But a snapping turtle? They bite back. You could lose a fingertip. We might see bleeding people, not just bleeding animals, in front of a live audience chanting motivational phrases with a commandingly pressurized undercurrent like, “Do it! Do it!”
And when was the last time you saw snapping turtle on a menu anywhere? That’s not real food that real people eat at real restaurants. Viewers end up spending seven minutes of an hour-long show watching these poor chefs figure out how to do the butchery, instead of learning something about how to cook. I doubt anybody saw the snapping turtle episode and thought it would be the perfect thing to try at home. Still think I’m making too much of this? Then let’s talk about the python in episode seven.
Mercifully, the python was already dead. But it was whole, and still in need of butchery. The unveiling of the python ran not only in teaser trailers for its particular episode, but repeatedly throughout the season’s commercial promotion as the ultimate attention-getter. I’m not squeamish about snakes, either. The reptile house is my favorite hang out at any zoo. I lived in Louisiana for a few years and got my fill of alligator, too. Gator is not at all common outside of a few coastal Southern states, but it is one of my favorite proteins. Seems to me like the best of both fish and chicken.
In Florida two years ago, exotic pet importation caused an explosion of the Burmese python population. The state issued a challenge to its citizens to help round up the huge snakes, and for one hot minute, there was a pizzeria offering up an “Everglades pizza” with python, frog legs and gator sausage. Then authorities warned not to eat it, because the pythons consistently proved to contain such high levels of mercury that their meat was essentially poisonous. And that was the end of a much ballyhooed $45 pizza. Knife Fight aired its python episode nearly a full year later, after the danger posed by this protein was crystal clear.
Suffering the python competition were two chefs with zero experience in this field. One was a farm-to-table guy from New Jersey and the other was a New Yorker with a Southeast Asian focus. The latter, Leah Cohen of Pig & Khao, arguably may have encountered python meat in her travels through Myanmar, but she certainly didn’t list it amongst her favorite dishes from the region. The python in episode seven was the moment when I realized Knife Fight has jumped the shark. The show has seen happier days. I prefer the image of a leather-clad Fonzie tapping the jukebox to get its music going, not the Fonzie who donned water-skis to literally jump over a shark.
But hey, that was the fifth season of Happy Days and the show went on to do six more seasons. Ratings are ratings, right? That was the late '70s, and the American attention span has notoriously declined since then. Baudrillard was so right about the ugliness of our trend in mass communication. In Simulacra and Simulation, he identified four stages of attention to imagery. First, we believe these images to be a reflection of our reality. Art mirrors life. Knife Fight begins with an exceedingly plausible kitchen scenario. Second, the television show begins to pervert our reality. The python episode forces me to believe that Knife Fight’s kitchen is no longer faithful to actual kitchens or restaurants or food at large.
The last two stages of Baudrillard’s understanding can be widely seen all across competitive reality television and contemporary commercialism. Third, the art pretends to simulate reality, but it is in fact a copy without an original thing. The Real Housewives or the Kardashians do not actually point toward any type of authentic life lived by famous rich people. In the cooking world, you might look at Paula Deen, whose personal brand and extreme over-usage of butter are predicated on Southern stereotypes with little basis in historical fact or contemporary reality. By this kind of obscuritan sorcery, we reach the fourth and final stage of pure simulation, wherein you have Guy Fieri as King of the Food Network and Donald Trump as President of the United States.
I could not bear to watch the newest season of Knife Fight, though I did follow it in print. Here’s a list of the proteins featured in season four: turkey parts, pickled herring, skungilli, live soft-shell crabs, scorpion fish, coxcombs, live Korean mudfish, aged Porterhouse steak, jellyfish, Jamon Iberico, mahi-mahi, live sea eel, lamb brains, live black bass, duck testicles, raccoon, blue-footed chicken, live uni, branzino, and whole ostrich. Of these 20 proteins, I can personally claim to have eaten some version of only nine of them -- and I am a person who eats adventurously, travels often, and reads constantly about food. My actual food reality is slightly distant from most peoples’ food reality, and even I can’t find sure footing with Knife Fight, anymore.
Nor can the chefs appearing on the show. In the Quarterfinals battle featuring Miami’s “grilling god” Sean Brasel, he reveals not having worked with live sea urchin since he was an apprentice. He’s been executive cheffing for more than a decade, and he was stumped by this butchery situation. After a gory few minutes of wresting with the live, spiky creature, even Hall was a little freaked out by the surrealism of the scene. "That uni died for nothing," he said with a sad shake of the head. Then Brasel lost and his opponent advanced to the Finals, only to lose in a battle with these ingredients: fermented soybeans, European seabass, whole ostrich, and soil.
Yeah, soil. As in: dirt. To whom do we appeal? Hall must exert some power over the ingredients for his own show. Barrymore doesn't seem to be in it for the money; she loves food. Esquire Network should care more about consistency of its brand than these last two seasons of Knife Fight have evidenced. Let’s save wacky melodrama for Bravo’s Top Chef and shocking weirdness for the Food Network. Those are already lost causes. An authentic Knife Fight may still be saved from the wreckage of its simulated self.