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Ten Deep 6.19.14: Top 10 Cooking Competition Series
Posted by Mike Gorman on 06.19.2014

"Top Ten Cooking Competition Series"

If you go back just a few years cooking competition shows on television were few and far between. Most were of the special or mini-series variety, and usually were shown on the Food Network. Soon it was discovered that there was an audience for these shows and their popularity blossomed both on cable and network television. These days you can probably find a different one on television every day, several times a day. It is as if they are the new game show and in some instances the most dramatic shows on the air. This week's Ten Deep looks at the top ten of all time. Let's warm up, with number ten…

10. Hell's Kitchen

For me, Hell's Kitchen is really the train wreck of cooking competition shows in that it is truly terrible but I cannot seem to look away. First, I have to wonder how the show casts these contestants because it certainly has nothing to do with cooking ability. For the most part they all seem to be about average in that department but they seem to excel in their lack of communication skills and willingness to start fights. This show could be called "The Real Housewives (husbands) of the Kitchen" and the casting would fit. Second, the scenarios and challenges they are put through seem tailored to intensify the drama, and of course allow for Gordon Ramsay's patented screaming. How this show actually produces candidates worthy of working in the upscale kitchens promised as the main prize I am uncertain, but what I do know is that I am rapt with attention each week when they slice open those under cooked Wellingtons and over cooked scallops. It's like you're waiting for a disaster to happen and usually they deliver.

9. Guy's Grocery Games

This selection was perhaps one of the hardest I have had to make in weeks here at Ten Deep. Why, you ask? This is because up until this moment I really have not been able to stand Guy Fieri. He's best described as the Food Network's flashy carnival barker who uses volume and rhyming to describe food quality instead of articulation. And then Guy's Grocery Games premiered, and I found myself enjoying one of his shows. The series is like a mix between a cooking show and the old game show, Supermarket Sweep. While over the top, the show presents a unique set of challenges that well, actually challenge the chefs who have come to compete. When a show has me cheering out loud like I am watching a football game, there is definitely something fun happening.

8. Worst Cooks in America

Worst Cooks in America has managed to capture one of the best parts of popular reality shows like American Idol and The Voice, the awful auditions, and craft an entire show around the participants. Sure at times some of the people on the show feel like they are hamming up their terrible-ness, but for the most part the show succeeds in bringing us some individuals who initially should not be allowed anywhere near a hot stovetop or boiling water. Whereas those other reality shows drag out the bad performers for a week or two of humiliation, this show takes those people and offers them guidance while giving the audience weeks upon weeks of entertainment as they encounter every day kitchen situations that to them are like exploring an alien planet. The show even manages to show the soft side of traditionally terrifying Chef Anne Burrell and that alone is an accomplishment of note!

7. The Next Iron Chef

In general Iron Chef America comes off as one of the most ham acted and set up "competitions" in the history of cooking competitions, and for the most part I find no enjoyment in watching the show. This fact leads to some irony as The Next Iron Chef is one of my favorite cooking programs. I am fully aware that the chefs competing are headed towards a rather dismal fate if they win, but in this case I find the journey fascinating. The show assembles some truly talented and charismatic chefs who seem earnest in their pursuit of the Iron Chef title, most likely due to the financial benefits it will provide, and makes them jump through some pretty silly hoops to reach their goal. Where the show truly succeeds is in its portrayal of the camaraderie that exists between chefs of this caliber. Each week we get to see that they are as excited as the audience is when their fellow chefs succeed and they are also as disappointed when someone is ejected from the competition each week.

6. The Taste

Off all the shows on this list, The Taste is one that I would describe as equally successful and awkward, and that is part of its charm. The show's concept of boiling down a dish into one perfect bite gives it a unique spin amongst a sea of shows who follow a more mundane model of game. Where The Taste soars is in its celebrity chef coaches; they are the ones that provide the awkwardness that I enjoy about this show. While they do possess a fair amount of cooking television experience, they just seem to fall apart at times when it comes to coaching on camera. Their usual cool and calm television demeanors tend to crack under the pressure of competition and they often take it out on their teams. Unlike Gordon Ramsay's trademark over the top yelling, here it comes across as true frustration and grief, which is a nice break from the way these shows normally play out. The show also succeeds structurally as their commitment to a blind tasting for the weekly elimination does create a real sense of foreboding and the unknown as the challenge draws to a close.

5. Iron Chef

But Mike, didn't you just lambast Iron Chef a few selections back? No, my problem is with Iron Chef America not the original Japanese Iron Chef. The original series was one of the very first cooking competitions to be imported to America's airwaves and it was certainly a new experience for viewers. The show was full of pageantry and drama but it also exposed us to ingredients and cooking techniques that we had never seen before. In every way the self-importance of Iron Chef America fails, the cooking aristocracy created by Iron Chef succeeds. The show presented Iron Chefs that clearly were masters of their craft in ways we had only imagined before seeing it on our TV screens. Even the cinematic styled voice over of the series worked from a stylistic standpoint. Iron Chef blazed a trail in many ways and showed the executives of the Food Network and other channels that there was indeed an audience for this genre of show.

4. Top Chef

It seemed for quite a while the Food Network had comfortably become the go to location for any food or cooking related competition shows, and no one really questioned their place in the genre, until Bravo spoke up. Bravo had spent some time repositioning itself from an artistic cinema channel to more of an affluent lifestyle network. Then, 8 years ago, they introduced a little show called Top Chef which quickly became known as the more high class cooking competition. I'd say this was because the production value on the show was greater than anything the Food Network could provide at the time. The show also "struck when the iron was hot" so to speak as the popularity of "Foodie" culture in this country was beginning to soar. For me, the success of the show was a combination of two things, incredibly talented contestants with strong personalities that do not feel forced or fake, and the culinary knowledge of the Judge's Table. When Top Chef brings in a special guest judge they truly mean special as the show attracts most of the cooking world's current culinary icons, never mind the focused critiques provided each week by the show's regulars, Tom, Gail and Padma. And speaking of Padma, they scored with her as a host, she brings sex appeal and well-honed cooking chops. At the end of each episode when she encourages us, in a sultry tone, to go to BravoTV.com for more information, I do.

3. Cutthroat Kitchen

With Cutthroat Kitchen we get the answer to the question, "Is there really anything that Alton Brown cannot do?" If possible I would nominate this no-nonsense man for President of the United States but that is another discussion entirely. Instead let's look at what happened when this dean of television culinary know how announced he would be fronting a game show on the Food Network. Personally my initial reaction was, "Damn he must need money!" and then I saw the show. On Cutthroat Kitchen Brown has somehow managed to keep his culinary integrity in place as he presents each week's dastardly sabotage auctions. It turns out that show's premise of actively encouraging contestants to risk their winnings in order to throw their fellow competitors off track is completely successful and very watchable. The idea that the person judging the food produced has no inkling of what has transpired during the game is genius. You can see it in the contestants' eyes when they are being critiqued. You know they want to just shout out, "But you don't know what I was dealing with!!!" The show also introduced a fun after-show web program where the sabotages are revealed to the week's judge. I have attached one of those webisodes here for your viewing pleasure.

2. Masterchef Jr

I have a lot of problems with the regular version of Masterchef on Fox. For example, I feel like when the show began it had promise with two other judges tempering the style of Gordon Ramsay but as the show progressed I feel like they decided to instead ape his style presenting a unified front of negativity to the contestants. Then this season they decided to eliminate the audition rounds which was the only element of the show provided the audience with a sense of connection to the contestants. I could go on, but I will not, instead I'd rather focus on how I feel the complete opposite of the series spinoff, Masterchef Jr. Initially I was worried that the judges might use the same demeanor with the children but this was not the case. They opened themselves up to serve as encouraging teachers for these very excited and talented children. The show makes your heart swell when you see the true glee on the children's faces as they tackles the shows the competitions and their joy when any of them succeed. If you're looking for a cooking competition that showcases true talent and brings a hefty helping of human interest, this is indeed the show for you. I cannot wait for the new season to begin soon!

And finally…

1. Chopped

When I began brainstorming for this week's list I had it in my mind that one of the more title driven shows would end up in the number one spot. You know, one of the shows with a trophy/prize given away just once a season. Upon deeper review though I kept coming back to one show that really was firing on all cylinders and that show was Chopped. Chopped has a fascinating format in its "mystery box" challenges that lends itself to infinite variety. Hence the show can operate in a normal mode or decide to focus on a theme to equal success. This is bolstered by the endless supply of culinary talent across the country it can draw upon for contestants and a solid set of judges who give insight mixed with creative banter. The show has the ability to create new heroes and villains each week and can even drip with sentimentality yet not be too saccharine. Case in point, the "Lunch Lady" episode. They drew together four women who cook in schools and threw them into the Chopped arena. Throughout the course of the episode we saw some fantastic cooking and learned about these amazing women who work hard under extreme pressure to create healthy, tasty meals for our children. Chopped soars when it hits upon a great theme like this, and luckily for us, it seems to do this quite often. In a week or so, their new Chopped Teen Tournament will be beginning and I am certain it will result in some fascinating entertainment. The Food Network does seem to recognize the show's popularity and success, and as a result is supporting its continued existence, which means we will hopefully not see it on the chopping block any time soon.

Did I let your favorite cooking competition slip by? Challenge me in the comments section below!

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