WHAT’S COOKING? I was on Jian Ghomeshi’s daytime arts radio show on CBC last week with Tara Thorne, the arts editor of Halifax’s The Coast magazine, and during a discussion of summertime TV Tara made a casually disparaging comment about the dance and chef reality shows that seem to fill the air this time of year. I felt obliged to admit that two of those shows – So You Think You Can Dance? and Hell’s Kitchen – are among my favourite, a highlight of summer TV watching, but there wasn’t much of a chance in our limited time to discuss the abiding paradox of TV food shows; whatever they’re about, they’re not about eating.


In a story in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, three of the big cookery competition shows are scrutinized – Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef, and The Next Food Network Star. The first one is the most famous, hosted by famously irascible British chef Gordon Ramsay, while the second is a kitchen version of Project Runway, and the third is a production of the U.S. Food network that offers a shot at TV chef stardom on the network as a prize – a show with its own equivalent airing right now on our own Food Network, Superstar Chef Challenge.


The gauntlet-like nature of the professional kitchen is the first thing that strikes a new viewer, or anyone who hasn’t worked in a restaurant, with Ramsay as the brute epitome of the head chef as tyrant. There’s a lot of ego going around, especially with experienced contestants who’ve worked their way up the kitchen ladder, which is a good thing because all of these shows share an unforgiving attitude toward mistakes – a good thing because mistakes in a kitchen are likely to lead to burns, blood, sick customers and even the odd death.


Ramsay howls at his kitchen crews, threatening violence and mocking them in the crudest language, while even Top Chef has seen violence between contestants; with all this drama waiting to happen, it’s no surprise that reality cook shows are such a burgeoning and high-rated genre. But while their ancestors – shows like Iron Chef and personality shows featuring cooks such as Jamie Oliver, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali – climaxed in an appeal to your appetite with some toothsome product of kitchen labour, it’s unlikely you’ll have much of an appetite by the time the credits roll on the new shows.


Hell’s Kitchen is the most extreme example; as the Times describes the show: “Meals are rarely transcendent; in several cases, patrons at the restaurant leave before food is ever served. (After two seasons of this show, who would ever voluntarily eat in this restaurant?) Last week, one contestant retrieved pasta from the trash bin when she realized she needed another order; she was not sent home.”

Food television has made the average diner much more aware of the hierarchies, structures and business of running a working kitchen, but I’m wondering if the new shows are going to infect viewers with the anxiety that they trade in, and encourage us to stiffen our backs at every raised voice coming from the back, or wonder if heavy spices are disguising meat past its expiry date or dim lighting will distract us from underdone chicken as a prelude to a subsequent trial by stomach.