My secret pastime
September 23, 2011
Okay. I admit it. I have a disturbing affinity for competitive cooking shows. I know that the dramatic music, drawn out pauses, and convoluted challenges are somewhat absurd. But I’m addicted. The thing that initially roped me in was a sauce tasting challenge in which two chefs went head to head with the goal of naming more ingredients than their opponent in a mystery sauce they tasted. Sort of like the old ‘Name that Tune’ game show – Instead of ‘I can name that tune in 3 notes’ it was ‘I can name 9 ingredients in that sauce’. It was astounding to me how some of them were able to pick out fairly obscure ingredients (to me, anyway). That was on Top Chef, my initial obsession. I’ve watched an awful lot of different food shows – all varieties of Top Chef (Regular, All-Stars and Masters), Chopped, Dinner Impossible, Master Chef, 24 Hour Restaurant, and even The Next Food Network Star. I had a shorter run of obsession with pastry-based programming, because some of those cakes they make are astoundingly decorated, and it’s amazing how cupcakes have evolved from when I was a kid and you took them to grade-school on your birthday.
What is it that fascinates me so much about these food shows? I’ve thought about this, and I think it comes down to how blown away I am by the skill these people have at improvising and creating things. I love watching someone open a basket with giant squid, gummy bears, durian and artichokes, and making an entree out of it in 30 minutes (okay, that combination might be too mean even for Chopped). I’m enthralled by the amazingly experienced and tremendously creative chefs on Top Chef Masters. One of my favorite finales required the chefs to make a quartet of dishes: one based on their earliest food memory, one that got them interested in food as a career, one showcasing their present point of view, and the last representing where they were going in the future. The dishes and stories were fascinating. The food memories were all very personal, and mostly related to a parent or grandparent who made a favorite dish when the chef was a child, and involved them in the preparation, resulting in the blossoming of a great and enduring love for food. I love hearing those kinds of stories.
Another thing I like about these shows is that most of the contestants, no matter how experienced and talented they are, seem to get rattled at times. And there are plenty of things that don’t turn out well, but the best competitors just go to Plan B and don’t look back. Knowing that even these gastronomists worry about how things are going to turn out makes me feel a little better about the times when I mess something up in the kitchen. And watching people alter their plans on the fly in order to make the best of it has prodded me to attempt to do the same when what I’m making doesn’t seem to be turning out. And you know, it actually works most of the time!
As a result of these shows, I’ve also learned about foods and techniques that I probably wouldn’t have run across otherwise. Lately I’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain’s show ‘No Reservations’, which is a fascinating tour of food in a plethora of different cultures. It’s so interesting to see the authentic dishes of different countries and people. There are some dishes I’ve heard of or had, but which have been Americanized in the form I have experience with, so to see the original versus the interpretation is always fascinating. (Although sometimes interpretations can be great. We ate at a Czech-Mex restaurant in Prague that was a surprisingly wonderful Czech interpretation of Mexican food with a Caribbean bent.)
I suppose there are worse secret habits to have, and I do learn something from all of these shows I watch. Plus, it’s really quite entertaining.