Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cutthroat Kitchen

I am a huge Alton Brown fan.  Good Eats was the television show that really lit that spark inside me that loved to cook, and without him being able to break down the science of cooking in a way that not only showed me technique but also explained how, why, and (in a few cases) where things were happening.  When his show went off the air, I was rather depressed.  Thank heavens for reruns.  Also thank heavens for Iron Chef America, where I still get samplings of his encyclopedic knowledge base of food and how cooking works.

However, when I heard that he was going to be hosting a new game show on the Food Network...I wasn't sure.  I remembered an Ask Me Anything of his where he didn't seem too fond of cooking competitions with gimmicks, and while I do love programs like Chopped, it was starting to feel a bit silly.  Cupcake competitions, dessert competitions with bizarre ingredients, and all sorts of other shows were popping up.

But I started to learn more about it, and I became interested.  Well, slightly interested.  I was willing to give it a shot because, well, Alton Brown was hosting it.  Surely the smartest man Food Network ever hired wouldn't lead me wrong.

First off, let me say that when I watch a cooking competition, I want it to actually be about the cooking first, the competition second.  I like Chopped because, while it does throw curve balls at the chefs in the baskets, it all really does come down to who prepared a better dish.  Every contestant is at an even level.

When Kitchen Casino was announced, I groaned inwardly.  Throwing randomness into cooking competitions takes away from the cooking, since one chef could randomly get a huge advantage over the others through nobody's fault.

What Cutthroat Kitchen does is it provides each contestant with $25,000.  Contestants can then bid on ingredients, gimmicks, or penalizers to give to their opponents.  The winner gets to leave with whatever money they have left, be it the full amount or just a hundred dollars.  This adds on an entirely new level of strategy since contestants need to balance their desire to win with the desire to have something to show for it.  Do you bid high early on and take your chances getting a lot of things thrown at you later, or save your money early and risk being sent home because you were too overwhelmed by something?

But here's the kicker: many times when I've watched this program, despite the penalties, the terribile ingredients, or the terrible sabotages done to each other, it really does seem to come down to a lot of cooking basics that determine who wins and who loses.  People who spend all their money punishing their competitors will forget to season their food correctly, or will forget an ingredient, or simply burn their finished product.  One woman, in a moment of gloating over what she unleashed on her opponents, forgot to put the lid on her blender after adding hot liquid and turned it on.  The resulting splash back on her stunned her and caused her to knock her blender right into a trash can, thus denying her any sauce.

I've seen many chefs get sabotage after sabotage thrown at them and yet, probably with the help of clever video editing and interviews to make chefs sympathetic, they manage to hold on to the next round or even win everything.  Contestants who throw thousands of dollars at hindering their opponents screw up and get sent home anyway.

Somehow, in a show where you might need to stop everything to cook a stack of pancakes, do all of your cooking on a scooter, or have all of your tortillas put through a paper shredder, it still comes down to the cooking.

So, what do I think?  I think that it had a rough start, simply because they were still trying to figure out how to make us want certain people to win over other people, but it's certainly smoothed out since then.  I find myself doing what I do with Chopped, trying to figure out what I'd do with certain curveballs before the round begins.  Would I know how to handle doing all of my cooking in ice cream cones?  Would I be able to cleverly think of a way around processed cheese product in a battle where fresh cheese is key?

Probably not.  But it's fun to imagine it.

Alton also gets to show an entirely new and particularly diabolical side of himself, relishing in the pain and suffering he gets to inflict on the contestants with each biddable item he reveals.  However, there's no real sense of malice in it.  While the contestants are cooking, he'll occasionally break down how he'd handle a challenge, or point out something interesting about a chef's cooking technique that could come back to hurt them later.  I've even seen him "hint" at advice to chefs who seem particularly stuck on certain challenges.

If Good Eats is science geek Alton and Iron Chef America is wise, professional host Alton, I guess that makes Next Food Network Star the stern father Alton and Cutthroat Kitchen the Alton Brown who never grew up past nine years old and loves to share his (evil) toys.

For anybody hesitant, I recommend trying an episode or two.  There are some where you spend the entire time rooting against someone with a huge ego just to have them win anyway, but you often get to feel good when the underdog somehow manages to rise up and claim the prize.

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