I have an interesting relationship with the Food Network, in that I find most of its programming enjoyable enough without ever developing the desire to actively engage myself in it. It’s a good place to spend a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon, where you can catch Guy Fieri devouring a plate of chili cheese fries or Mark Summers regaling you with anecdotes about Twinkies with his fake game-show smile.
I find the competition shows to be largely hit-and-miss, but that’s not really anyone’s fault but my own. I like my contests to be nice and objective, with clearly-defined rules and expectations, and you just don’t get it wrapped up that neatly in a glorified taste test. Judging in a cooking contest is by necessity subjective and sometimes arbitrary. It just goes with the territory.
Still, I have a very strong fondness for Iron Chef. I love the frantic nature of it. When you watch Iron Chef you are watching something masterful, unfolding in an environment of controlled chaos. Alton Brown is just a joy with his play-by-plays, bringing humor and education in just the right amounts. If you’re lucky the judges are every bit as entertaining. (Who is the old, mean fat guy? He’s my favorite.)
The chefs themselves are great characters, seemingly larger-than-life, giants to be toppled by the underdog challenger… and that’s the whole point. Which is why The Next Iron Chef is such a bad idea.
The Next Iron Chef is a show where contestants face off for the chance to be the next addition to the Iron Chef ranks. Each episode the competing chefs face off in some culinary challenge or another and the judges eliminate the worst of them. At the end only one is left standing. This is a pretty standard format used in some of Food Network’s other competition shows and, indeed, reality shows of every make and model.
Here’s why it doesn’t work: watching a full season of this would-be Iron Chef making mistakes, becoming nervous, giving emotional accounts of his progress throughout the competition, having his cooking constantly and harshly criticized… it humanizes him. The big-eared Chef Mehta, one of the finalists this season, could look sufficiently intimidating alongside the other Iron Chefs. If he wins, though, I’ll never be able to watch him in competition without remembering the hurt expression on his face after his opponents made fun of his flowery presentation and predisposition towards sweetness. “I don’t care what others think of me,” said Chef Mehta, as though he had been bullied on the playground. You just wanted to give him a big hug.
The illusion is ruined, and always will be. Chef Mehta is too human in my mind to be the monster Iron Chef needs him to be.
I already have this same problem with two standing Iron Chefs. It’s impossible for me to watch Bobby Flay without seeing him as the guy who is consistently beaten on his own competition show Throwdown. The schtick on Throwdown is that Flay challenges some small-town cook to his own specialty. My brain just can’t process the who couldn’t match some country bumpkin’s “Almost Famous” chicken-fried steak doing well against the owner of a chain of gourmet restaurants in Battle Zuchini.
Then we have Michael Symon, who I believe was added to the cast after the last The Next Iron Chef. That’s bad enough, but he also did a season of Dinner: Impossible, wherein the chef is giving limited time and resources in which to prepare some completely unreasonable amount of food. The program is designed to showcase hilarious failure. It’s just not… becoming of an Iron Chef.
I do realize it’s all smoke and mirrors, of course. I don’t know much about the remaining Iron Chefs; maybe a few hours on Wikipedia would ruin them for me as well. And it’s true that some of them aren’t the showmen that Flay and Symon are. Still, there’s nothing wrong with having spent my Sunday watching the Next Iron Chef marathon, even though I know some of my future channel-surfing endevours will be ruined.
Hmm… I probably should have watched the finale to see if adorable li’l Chef Mehta won.