On your mark, get set - cook!

'All's fare' when chefs battle it out in TV competitions.

By RUTH BELOFF
November 13, 2011 10:38
4 minute read.
‘Top Chef’ judges Simmons, Colicchio and Lakshmi

Top Chef judges 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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As an armchair enthusiast, I love to watch competitions on TV. Be it The Amazing Race, American Idol, The X Factor, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, Design Star, The Arrangement, Celebrity Apprentice or The Weakest Link, I love to see how people use their skills and their wits to strategize and be the last one standing. It’s also interesting to see how the competitors fall short and to hear from the judges where and why they went wrong.

It’s all food for thought – especially the shows that are cooking competitions. After I had enjoyably digested two seasons of the Israeli Master Chef on Channel 2, I was delighted to see that the American show Top Chef has returned to Channel 3 (HOT 3) for its fifth season. Now in its fourth week, the competition is heating up as the relatively young professional chefs vie with each other in the Quickfire Challenge and the Elimination Challenge to make it through to another week. By the end of the season, the chef that has ultimately avoided elimination wins $100,000 to further his or her culinary career, gets a feature article in Food and Wine magazine and, of course, earns the coveted title of Top Chef.

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One of the chefs that has been eliminated was a young woman who used an ostrich egg in her dish to wow the judges. She had never cooked one of those huge eggs before and had no idea what its consistency was like. She used it to make a quiche with some garnish. Besides the fact that the judges thought that her quiche tasted like glue, her real undoing was the fact that she had used such an exotic ingredient in such a mundane manner. “If you’re going to use an ostrich egg,” said head judge chef Tom Colicchio, “then use it in an interesting and original way” – and she was gently told by the lovely Padma Lakshmi to “Please pack your knives and go.”

What is especially challenging is that they are always cooking under an imposed time limit. So no matter how creative or tasty their dish might be, if it’s not ready and artistically plated by the time Lakshmi calls “Time’s up! Utensils down!”. they’re basically minced meat. Talk about pressure cooking.

Another culinary show that gets the adrenalin going is 24 Hour Restaurant Battle on the Good Life Channel (HOT 41). Here, two pairs of amateur cooks compete with each other for the prize of $10,000 to jump-start their dream of opening their own restaurant. Within 24 hours, each pair has to furnish and design an empty room as their restaurant (the fully equipped kitchen is already there), come up with a name, create a full menu and cook for the 75-100 people who come there to eat. They are given $4,000 to spend on ingredients and decor. They are also given cooking assistants and servers, and the clientele is supplied for them as well. Among the patrons is a team of four judges, headed by New York chef and restaurant owner Scott Conant. The drama here is to see how the two teams stand up the challenge of designing, cooking, serving and hosting – all within 24 hours. Based on the style and cuisine of their restaurant, it is fascinating to see what dishes they create for their menu and how well they can keep up the pace. At the end of the evening, after all the diners have left, Conant declares the winner.

One of the dishes I especially liked in this series was the meat loaf cupcake (before you start gagging, let me finish). As a main dish, one team made mini meat loaves in muffin tins and topped each one with a little mound of mashed potatoes. Not only was it a very clever concept, but according to the judges the dish was delicious.

And speaking of cupcakes, another cooking competition I like to sink my teeth into is Cupcake Wars on the Food Channel (HOT 32) and sometimes on the Good Life Channel. Here, pitted against each other are pairs of professionals who own bakeries or cupcake shops in the US. Three judges give them all kinds of bizarre baking challenges to accomplish in a very short space of time, and it is simply amazing to see how varied and innovative a little cupcake can be. But the real icing on the cake is the final round, where the last two challengers battle it out by creating a thematic display they have to build to accommodate the 1,000 cupcakes they have to bake – all within a relatively short time. The winning team receives the grand prize of $10,000.

For people who like to cook or, better yet, for people who like to watch other people cook, these shows nourish the imagination and stir up a lot of excitement.

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