It takes a special kind of chef to sign up for a competition show. When it comes to cooking, it's much easier, really, to stay in your own kitchen, keep your nose to the saucepan and crank out the best food you know how without the aggravation of mystery ingredients and a ticking clock.
But that's the least of it these days. Cooking competition shows have become so ubiquitous, they must now find ways to up the ante. Simple time-crunches and curveballs are child's play. Now, the process must be back-breaking. Therefore, the time is ripe for both No Kitchen Required (BBC America) and Around the World in 80 Plates (Bravo) to make their debuts.
The former feels much like Top Chef + Survivor, while the latter is more like Top Chef + The Amazing Race. Extreme? Yes. Exciting? Sure. But we wonder -- is this what the foodist audience really wants?
Let's look at No Kitchen Required. Episode one (which we've screened early) opens with the three "cheftestants," Kayne Raymond, Madison Cowan and Michael Psilakis (the credits later tell us Psilakis is a co-executive producer) rapelling down a cliff to a beach on the island of Dominica. Why? No real reason, except to let us know this cooking show is badass.
The chefs take on a "Quickfire"-type challenge, machete-ing through vines as they dig for yams on the hillside in their bare feet. It's all very rugged.
Which is why right away we were put off, concerned this was quickly heading in the direction of Extreme Chef (Food Network). In that show, chefs were made to cook on car engines with one hand tied behind their back while fake rain poured down on them, just for the hell of it. It was ridiculous and, in our opinion, did little to celebrate what culinary arts are all about.
Thankfully, No Kitchen Required takes a more enlightened turn. The main challenge, as it turns out, is to cook a meal of locally inspired dishes for the Kalinago tribe, which will be judged by a panel of tribespeople. The show is really about being a quick study in locavorism, which is a refreshing change. The contestants meet with the natives they will later serve to learn the secrets behind the traditional flavors they're tasked to imitate, and immediately start menu-planning.
Of course, they don't get off that easy. Cowan, who says he hates "rats," ends up forced to hunt possum. And not with a rifle. The animal is shaken out of a tree, then chased by the chef, stepped on and stabbed in the head. Appetizing, no?
Psilakis spearfishes for his protein, and Raymond has to feel blindly under rocks and grab crayfish with his bare hands. Not quite as terrifying as a possum chase, but difficult nonetheless. But this is the way it's done in Dominica, and the chefs must oblige.
When they finally cook -- in the open air on the beach (no kitchen required - get it?) -- harsh winds blow away their ingredients and rain starts pouring down, making for difficult cooking conditions. But at least the rain is real and not contrived solely to be an obstacle. (In fact, Dominica is among the rainiest nations on earth.) Finally each meal is served and a panel of five Kalinago people choose a winner, with adherence to traditional flavors as their main criteria.
Compare this with Around the World in 80 Plates on the next page.
Around the World in 80 Plates (which we've not screened but did receive press materials about) also makes local culture the priority. Amazing Race-style, chefs globe-trot to a new corner of the world each week, immersing themselves in local cuisine, then serving up their best representations to local diners, who judge them, accordingly, on how well they upheld the integrity of regional flavors.
80 Plates includes a preliminary "Quickfire" challenge (though it's actually called "The Course") in which contestants essentially scavenger-hunt through town performing high-stakes tasks for a chance to win the "Exceptional Ingredient," which they can use in the elimination round. From what we can tell, the initial contests are set up to teach the chefs about their culinary surroundings, which is useful, since the local diners will be judging them on their aptitude.
Both Kitchen and 80 Plates are high-pressure and action-packed, which, for someone usually content watching good old-fashioned cooking shows, is not necessarily the attraction. But in the case of both, we're relieved they haven't lost sight of what we all care most about: the food. In a world where even Top Chef contestants found themselves aimlessly chipping away at ice blocks for their ingredients for reasons no one could quite decipher, this is a welcome reassurance.
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No Kitchen Required premieres Tuesday, April 3, at 10 p.m. on BBC America.
Around the World in 80 Plates premieres Wednesday, May 9, at 10 p.m.. on Bravo.
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