On Cooking Competitions and the Importance of Guilty Pleasures

Over this past week or so, I’ve been binge-watching Bravo’s Top Chef. This is one of those several reality competition shows, wherein a group of trained chefs (usually somewhere between 12 and 17, and yes, that is a range) compete with one another in various culinary based challenges for the title of “Top Chef,” recognition, and oh yeah, a bit of cash prizes. Each episode features two challenges: a Quickfire where the chefs are asked to cook something fast, usually within 20-30 minutes, and a longer Elimination Challenge, where the chefs are presented with some culinary task. This is followed by Judges’ Table, where the various judges (usually apparently renown chef Tom Colicchio, editor of Food and Wine Magazine Gail Simmons, and gorgeous host and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi) pass final judgement, and someone is eliminated.

These shows almost never vary from that patter. Hell’s Kitchen, probably one of the most popular ones, essentially does the same thing: individual challenges in the first part of the episode, working in the titular kitchen for the second half. The same goes for Masterchef, which almost exactly copies Top Chef’s formula, only they use non-professional home cooks instead. Most recently, Next Level Chef has various teams coached by three professional chefs in three different levels of kitchen, and yes, they have an initial cooking challenge then an elimination one.

Those three all involve Gordan Ramsay in some form or fashion, by the by. He also does several other reality television shows, and I’ve seen nearly all of them. He’s memetic for a reason, guys.

But each and every one of these follows this almost comfortable pattern. I have previously watched all 18 seasons of Top Chef (plus all 20 of Hell’s Kitchen and all 19 of Masterchef), so this is actually a rewatch for me. I do usually skip the last episode or so, particularly on a rewatch: I already know who the winner is, and I usually don’t care by that point in the competition (only once in my rewatch so far has one of my favorites made it to that point: Top Chef season 5, but they have the absolute worst winner so…). I’m now just starting season seven.

And part of me wonders why I’m bothering with all these shows. This is something like 1000 episodes altogether of cooking competition television, probably more. Next Level Chef just came out and I’m already hooked. I’ve also previously watched Survivor (nearly all seasons; currently more or less up to date), American Idol, and The Voice. This is all reality television, which is commonly known as being overly dramatic garbage.

For me, there’s something to these competition shows. In watching them, I start to sort of understand why people get into sports a lot.

See, in sports, at least from my understanding, you pick a team that you root for. This may be your home team or one you have some emotional attachment to. Doesn’t matter: they’re your team. You buy their stuff and you regularly watch the games, which follow all the same general rules (sound familiar yet?). There’s nailbiting outcomes and you’re never completely sure who’s going to come out on top as it all comes down to the performance of the moment. Oh sure, there’s the chance to look it up if the game’s already aired…

And I have a similar experience with a lot of these reality shows. I get excited when I meet other fans of them. There’s just something to how they’re put together. And yet I know several of them are, to put it simply, not great. The first few seasons of Top Chef feel very much a product of their times. Everyone has early 2000s’ hair, and they’ve got this attitude like “I’m on a reality show and that means I have to cause trouble.” To be sure, the editors have a lot to do with this. I just watched a reunion special, and the various chefs all pointed out that their edits essentially created “characters” out of their existing personalities.

Though the ones cast as irritating villains still had a lot of their villainous qualities, I must say.

There’s something comforting for me in watching these, even rewatching when I remember who ends up winning and who goes far enough to become All Stars. I get to root for certain people and really hope they can accomplish their dreams. I know the setup’s stupid, repetitive, but it hits an animal brain thing in me. I literally cannot stop watching these sort of shows.

Now, the astute among you may have noticed I did not include The Great British Bake-Off in that earlier mix. It, too, follows a pattern, though with three different bakes instead of just two cook-offs. These are a signature where the baker produces something that demonstrates their skills, a technical where they’re given a blind item to bake and must be judged blind, and a show-stopper, where they, well, pull out all the stops. Very similar structure: someone’s judged and eliminated.

So why not include it above? Mostly because it’s undeniably British. The tone is just… vastly different. The GBBO is calming, relaxing, and you get the feeling that while everybody wants to win, they really want everyone to enjoy baking first. There’s never the almost deliciously dramatic backstabbing of the other shows, not this desperation. It almost feels like it was more designed for these times despite having about the same duration and start time as the rest (12 series as of now, and yes, I’ve watched all the ones I can).

Basically, I don’t feel guilty about liking the GBBO. It almost feels like a sanitized version of the rest of the shows I listed. Those I feel a bit guilty about, because I know they’re repetitive and people give me odd looks when I bring them up. Don’t really get those for mentioning video games (any more) or for when I watch the popular television. Weirdly they don’t even show up that much for mentioning animated movies, and the shows often have my friends and colleagues, who have children or are aware of animation’s steps forward, nodding along.

But mention a cooking competition? And people get a little weird.

For me, these are kinda comforting and in many ways just too engaging not to watch. I mean, there’s a reason they’ve almost all lasted into the double-digits for seasons and new ones are coming out. We crave these guilty pleasures, these things that we enjoy watching. I just spent the last few weeks binging a show I’ve seen before where I know almost all the winners and semi-finalists, but I’m still doing it. It still brings me joy. I think we need stuff like this in our lives, little bits here and there to just unabashedly enjoy, products of minds that think this stuff has some use in the world.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just started Season 7 of Top Chef and I can’t remember who the winner is…

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