I love cooking competition shows. There is something irresistible about giving a group of talented chefs a stocked pantry, 20 minutes (or so) on the clock and (of course) some kind of fun twist. I love to watch their adrenalin kick their creativity into overdrive as they rush around the kitchen chopping veggies, cleaning fish and making sauces. I love to watch the clock tick down to the last second as the Chefs frantically put their creations on a plate to be judged by a panel of other talented Chefs. Did the pressure cooker braise the lamb properly? Will the ice cream set? Was it a good idea to put candy corns in the salad dressing? I’m always very excited to find out. I watch them all: Master Chef, Chopped, The Next Food Network Star, Top Chef, Top Chef Just Desserts, Dinner Party Wars, Cupcake Wars, Iron Chef, Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef, and of course the All Star versions of all these shows. I didn’t think there was a cooking competition show I wouldn’t like. Then Cutthroat Kitchen came along.
On the surface Cutthroat Kitchen has all the things I like. Chefs, ingredients, time limits and judging; however I disliked it so much, I could barely get through the pilot. The show has a similar structure to Chopped in that four Chefs compete in three rounds with one chef being eliminated per round until a winner is crowned. Here’s the twist: each Chef is given $25,000 which they can use to bid on auction items used to put their opponents at a disadvantage. Or as host Alton Brown alliterates, “you can bid on devilish devices that you can use to discombobulate your opponents”. In the pilot these disadvantages include giving an opponent a utility knife in exchange for all of their cooking utensils, trading one opponents turkey breast for lunch meat and taking away all of an opponent’s eggs and dairy and giving them powdered versions of these things. It could be interesting to see the creative ways each contestant is forced to adapt to these challenges, however CK is more interested in the sabotage than the strategy. I have little interest in watching an opponent hack through a turkey breast with a utility knife or attempt to cook a turkey dinner with a butane burner instead of the stove. I also have little interest in the contestants themselves. Traditionally, cooking competition shows use cutaway interviews of the contestants to share how their education, family life, backgrounds etc. contribute to why and how they love to cook. In CK these interviews are used to showcase how much like cartoons these people are. One contestant proclaims, “I’m a lion in sheeps clothing–the lion doesn’t loose sleep over the feelings of the sheep” another, “I’m the type of person who will stab you quietly in the back, but I’d totally give you a hug after,” yet another aggressively gives the “suck -it” motion to the camera.
Another aspect of the show I have no interest in is the strange persona adopted by Alton Brown. Alton Brown loves all things food and cooking which he usually communicates in a genuine, passionate and contagious way (my GAOTV pal Katie describes that passion here). However on CK Brown is just as cartoonish as the contestants. As the competitors attempt to overcome the disadvantages heaped their way Brown sneers and chuckles, quipping things like “I love it” or “here’s an empty basket with which you can fill the hopes and dreams of your competitors.” His love of food is nowhere to be found. Neither is his common decency. When a contestant takes a nasty fall in the pantry Alton can be heard in voice over, “clean up on aisle 4”. If Alton, my guide through CK, doesn’t care about the contestants or the food, why should I?
Elimination is determined by a guest judge who has no knowledge of what disadvantages these Chefs have been forced to work with. I find this concept baffling as the entire show has been focused on qimicky setbacks and now, during judging, we are supposed to focus on the food? Food which I have no vested interest in because the show hasn’t had any interest in it. I’m embarrassed for the Chefs as they are forced to stand behind their dishes while they are criticized for elements completely beyond their control. Of course Chef Franky’s french toast tastes “a little off”– he wasn’t allowed to use dairy products! There is no tension in the judging round because A) cooking hasn’t been the show’s focus and B) the contestant who wins did not have the honor of using their skills to make the best dish possible; they win for because they spent the most money to sabotage their competitors. Why do the competitors need to be Chefs at all? I’d much rather watch a show in which the Chefs are given the opportunity to impress the judges and the audience with talent and creativity. That’s ok, though, I have many other shows to choose from!