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Reality Bites – Hell’s Kitchen vs The Next Food Network Star


ramsay Ever since Iron Chef of Japan became a cult classic U.S. television has been experimenting with cooking contests (including Food Network’s excellent American version of Iron Chef itself). From cakes to risotto we all want to know whose ‘cuisine reigns supreme’.

Allez Cuisine!

Two of the most popular are ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ which has even made it into the primetime lineup on a decent network Fox and The Next Food Network Star which is Food Networks effort to get into the American Idol business of validating your talent’s popularity before engineering their stardom.

On the surface you’d think a blog called Kitchen Warfare would just love a show called Hell’s Kitchen.

Hell’s Kitchen – From Our Garbage Can To Your Table

If you’re expecting to watch a cooking competition or learn something about food I’ll save you an hour of your life. Much to my surprise popular chef Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t really about the food. In the few shows I’ve watched I’ve seen more footage of contestants rooting through the garbage than doing any meaningful cooking. Sure they cook, its just that the food really has nothing to do with the show. They may as well be assembling IPods. We very rarely understand why something went wrong, just that it did and horribly so. We are rarely aware of what they were preparing but we can be sure Ramsay won’t like it and will curse out the contestants, close the doors of his fake restaurant and send all of his fake customers home.

If you’ve never seen this show it’s a little hard to describe. The contestants compete in a ‘made for TV’ version of the worlds most dysfunctional workplace. The boss is crazy, your peers are out to get you, everyone blames everyone else for the stuff that went wrong and if you get caught screwing up you’re given the worst job in the office (at Kitchen Warfare its writing these articles). The winner has to be able to cook in a way that pleases Ramsay and be immune to his ranting and raving about how crappy everything is. Presumably this because the winner gets/has to work in one of Ramsay’s restaurants and will have to listen to him for the rest of his life.

If you like to watch regular folks deal with adversity that is far in excess of the crap you have to put with every day then you may find Hell’s Kitchen a good watch. It’s just not about food.

If for whatever reason you do watch Hell’s Kitchen you may be interested to know that according to several sources the show’s producers have failed to award the winning contestant their prize in EITHER of the first two seasons.

So why the ‘garbage can to your table’ remark? Most people know that Gordon Ramsay is a popular and accomplished chef but watching his show should certainly make one question his tolerance of disgusting kitchen sanitation practices. I know I do. In one episode this season contestant Jen Yemola took discarded pasta out of a garbage can with the intention of plating it up for a customer. Even the other contestants on her team (who would have benefited) immediately put a halt to that nonsense. Much to our surprise she was barely reprimanded by Ramsay and is still in the running for a head chef gig at one of his restaurants. Apparently fishing food out of the garbage is not grounds for dismissal from a Ramsay kitchen.

Yuck, yeah?

The Next Food Network Star

Food Network’s ‘The Next Food Network Star’ is clearly aimed at finding a new personality to add to that network’s impressive line up of food savvy personalities. On Food Network Star contestants are vying for the very real opportunity to appear in their own cooking show and are being evaluated for that opportunity by Food Network executives Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson whose job it really is to get quality food related programming on the air. Clearly they know how to find personalities that excel in pure culinary skill (Emril, Batali, Flay et al), knowledge (Alton Brown) and marketability (Rachel Ray).

Unlike Hell’s Kitchen contestants are not competing directly against each other, instead Food Network Star contestants are evaluated on their individual effort and performance. It’s the difference between football and bowling. You still have to knock down more pins than your opponent to win but you don’t have to beat him up and drag him up and down the field to do it. This makes watching Food Network Star a more cerebral experience and far more interesting to those of us that are into the food. The contests are entertaining to watch and while they probably don’t exactly reflect the daily challenges of a network chef they do give the viewer and the network executives a chance to decide whose cooking show they are most likely to watch/put on the air.

While we ding Hell’s Kitchen for weaseling out of awarding their prizes Food Network Star (also in it’s third Season) has done exactly what they set out to do, find talent. First season’s winners Dan Smith & Steve McDonagh have a solid show still on Food Network (Party Line with The Hearty Boys) and have recently authored a cookbook slated to appear this September. Last years winner and Honorary Kitchen Warrior Guy Fieri’s show (Guy’s Big Bite) is now in its 2nd season. Guy is also starring in Food Network’s summer offering, Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives a very enjoyable look at road and regional food across the country. If you liked last summers Feasting On Asphalt with Alton Brown I think you’ll also enjoy Dinners, Drive-In’s and Dives.

One minor criticism of Food Network Star is how completely self serving it is. The selection committee determines who goes and who stays right down to the final two. Plus after watching the contestants on tape for a few weeks you can be sure the committee has a pretty good idea who the two finalists are going to be long before its time to name them. If that’s true then there’s a bit of faux drama in at least the last few episodes as the committee ‘wrestles’ with the order in which they eliminate the contestants they already know are not going to be in the final.

While Hell’s Kitchen is a game show that takes place in a fictional restaurant with fictional customers and fictional prizes, The Next Food Network Star has proven to be about something very real – an honest to goodness shot at becoming – you guessed it – a Food Network star.

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