I've commented here before about cooking competition shows that "test" skills chefs don't actually use in their own professional kitchens, but I was reminded of the point again just recently. After having let my volunteer work on the just-completed elections completely swamp pretty much all of the rest of my life for several weeks, I've been burning my DVR at both ends over the last couple days, trying to get caught up on my food TV favorites. I still have a backlog of Iron Chef America and Good Eats, but I've watched the latest two episodes each of Top Chef: Just Desserts and The Next Iron Chef, and I'm reminded all over how artificial these shows are.
This time, the bur under my saddle is the fact that the chefs on these shows have to fight for limited resources, including not only the main ingredients for their challenges, but also staple pantry items such as butter, eggs, herbs, and citrus, not to mention basic equipment like mixers, blenders, and vacuum sealers/immersion circulators (OK, maybe the sous vide gear isn't "basic" for you and me, but it is for these professional chefs). They also compete for space in cramped kitchens. This business of dealing with tight spaces, at least, is something professional chefs have to deal with in Real Life™, but in that case, they're sharing tight space with colleagues, not fighting for it with competitors. In this week's episode of Just Desserts, for instance, Morgan Wilson hit Yigit Pura's pulled-sugar vase with his elbow, setting the stage for Morgan to win the edible-bouquet Quickfire Challenge when Yigit was unable to present his planned display. In his own kitchen, working with his own colleagues, Morgan's elbow could be presumed to be accidental; in the heat of competition, though, who know?
And in last night's episode of Next Iron Chef, Ming Tsai bogarted the limes, and took his sweet time with the vacuum sealer (apparently the only one in the kitchen) before leaving it "destroyed" (really just messy) for Marco Canora, who was sweating bullets waiting for it.
On Next Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters, whose contestants are established, relatively high-profile professional chefs with reputations to protect, the players who've cornered the supply of something will usually (eventually) share... but not always even there, and on the shows whose cheftestants are hungry up-and-comers (e.g., Chopped, Top Chef, and Next Food Network Star), it can get pretty brutal in the trenches.
The thing is, throwing elbows and hoarding butter really have nothing to do with the chefs' ability to cook interesting food... which is what I'm watching for. In the case of Next Iron Chef, this sort of fighting for scarce resources is not only unrelated to working in a restaurant kitchen, it's also unrelated to the fake TV kitchen contestants are trying to get hired for: In Iron Chef America's Kitchen Stadium, both the Iron Chef and the challenger are provided with separate fully equipped workstations, access to fully stocked pantries, and two sous chefs... and with one or two notable exceptions, there's always been plenty of the secret ingredient (in all its provided varieties) for both teams. When they scramble to scoop up all the eggs or clams, the Next Iron Chef competitors are not only doing something they don't do in their "day jobs," they're also doing something they're not going to do in the job they're fighting to get.
Puzzling, no? And yet, I watch!