John Walker's Electronic House

Unscripted TV Part 2: Chefs

by on Jul.19, 2007, under The Rest

The similarities between Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen are astonishing. I’ve no idea which came first, but it’s very clear which is better. Both begin with a group of contestants, mostly working chefs, with a few wild card amateurs with culinary skills. And both have them compete in individual and team challenges, with an elimination each episode. The similarities continue. Both shows are filmed in the very same way, intercutting frantic preparation scenes with narrative private interviews. And both use the same cheat here, having the contestants clearly pretending to be describing the action as if in the middle of it, but obviously long after. (In the case of Top Chef, it’s obviously days later, while Hell’s Kitchen feels much more authentic, with sobbing, etc). These are astonishingly vacuous, having each moment reiterated by one of the competitors blankly stating exactly what you just saw. They’ll be told they have to cook something of a particular colour, and then it will cut to Chef X saying, “We were told we’d have to cook something of a particular colour. I was really excited/nervous/vacant about this.” Each has two challenges per episode, the first being a short, particular task, the second being preparing meals for customers. And finally, in the final showdown, both programmes have the last two chefs pick a team of sous chefs made up of the most recently eliminated competitors. That’s a lot to have in common. So what separates them?

Top Chef – Bravo

It’s remarkable that of the two near-identical formats, it’s the Bravo show that feels far less classy than Fox’s swear-fest. This might be to do with the grotesque product placement. Each episode is bloated with advertising, from the endlessly repeated “Kenmore kitchen” in which they cook, along with the suppliers of the equipment, right down to the manufacturor of the tubs they store the food in. Challenges are called “The Nestle Chocolate Challenge”, or even something to do with Kraft bottles of squeezy sauces. All of which is completely at odds with the level of cuisine the programme demands. Season 2 tried to address this for the first half of the series, weakly requiring reinventions of childhood classics, or cooking for children, but ultimately judging them on their ability to create something edible despite the supermarket ingredients they were forced to use. The chefs’ disgust with having to cook with chavvy crap really can’t be ideal for the paying advertisers.

Perhaps the biggest fault, and this really stands out in light of Hell’s Kichen’s far more intense nightly service, is the lack of importance behind the elimination challenges. Cooking a meal with fewer than 500 calories for some fat kids isn’t really going to highlight the highest calibre of culinary power. Asking them to prepare food for a fetish club is just tabloid. These contestants aren’t learning anything, with the programme’s main judge refusing to help with the cooking in any way. It’s about what you already know, meaning it’s fairly obvious from the start which four or five will make it to the end: the ones who are already very good.

It’s still fun to watch the judges hating all the food, and the carefully picked group of fifteen characters are designed to create friction. But ultimately the futility of progress makes the whole thing feel hollow. Top Chef, please pack your knives and go.

Hell’s Kitchen – Fox

Based on the UK version of the same programme, Gordon Ramsey’s show is by far the more cruel. But far, far better. And this is primarily due to the prize. Top Chef awards the winner a new kitchen, $100,000, and a feature in a magazine. Hell’s Kitchen gives them a high paid job as head chef in a big Las Vegas restaurant. The winner has to be really good, and at the start none of the contestants are anywhere close. That pressure on Ramsey makes for a much more compelling viewing.

Being on Fox, Ramsey’s usual barrage of swearing is replaced by a barrage of bleeps, but with all the f- and s- sounds left in for our listening pleasure. And it’s aggressive. Each episode sees not only the competitors trying to impress Mr Grumpy, but also surviving his wrath. While Top Chef only teams the chefs up occasionally, Hell’s Kitchen keeps them permanently in two groups for the evening services, where the restaurant opens to one hundred customers. They compete to provide the better service, and later in the series, the better menu. But for the majority of evenings, the pressure of preparing fifty meals to Ramsey’s standards ends in the kitchens being closed down and half the customers leaving unfed.

But through the pressure, you see incredible change. It seems too mean, and Ramsey is clearly a stroppy dick, but it really works. There may be nicey-nice ways to achieve the same, but screw them, they’d make terrible television. And I very much doubt they’d work in the short few weeks of the show. By the end, Ramsey really has a chef he could trust with a kitchen – something that was very clearly not an option at the start.

It is, of course, equally daft. And never more irritating than when Ramsey is attempting to step outside of his two personas – furious head chef and affable chum – and become tense TV show presenter. This leads to staccato sentences delivered with grandeur, but containing only the most empty statements. And the phrase, “For the… first time… in Hell’s Kitchen…” over and over and over. And peculiarly, almost never for the first time. Calming down a bit, and recognising they have a good thing without trying to shout how good their thing is throughout, would make it a lot more tolerable.

However, the main reason it’s great is thanks to it being the only honest reality show when it comes to elimination. It’s obvious that all the shows should see the contestants leave with, “Get the fuck out of my kitchen,” but there’s only one that does.

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