Why I Don’t Watch ‘Reality’ Cooking Shows

Their con­nec­tion to reality is non-existent

It was during the first season of The Restaurant with Rocco DiSpirito that I offi­cially signed off from watching any cooking reality show.

I knew Chef Rocco. I had eaten his food, admired his career tra­jec­tory and had gen­uine admi­ra­tion for my fellow Culinary Institute of America alum. But this show, with its sen­sa­tion­al­ized view of opening and run­ning a restau­rant, was too staged for me to swallow. From the spon­sor­ship of a glis­tening SUV (which the chef drove each episode) and American Express endorse­ment, to his always per­fect hair and Mama making her famous meat­balls along­side car­i­ca­tures of hard­core New York cooks, there was simply no reality at all.

First off, any tenured Big Apple cook can tell you that most of the high volume kitchens are staffed with Latinos—lots of them. When I “staged” (appren­ticed) at Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill just before grad­u­a­tion from CIA, I was struck by two things: in a kitchen of almost 35 cooks, there were only two women, and nearly all the cooks were of Latin-American descent. They came up through the ranks and, trust me, earned their stripes and sta­tions on the line. The front of the house (ser­vice staff) had none of the dis­tracted looks of aspiring actors or beauty con­test win­ners that peo­pled Rocco’s place. At Gotham, every staff member was a gliding, well-greased cog in the machine—with no drama. That kind of calm orches­tra­tion wouldn’t exactly sell on television.

Cooking competition/reality shows may con­tain a trace or two now and then of things you’ll see in a real day in the life of a restau­rant, but they are largely scripted, staged, filmed, and heavily edited with major spon­sors and mil­lions of adver­tising dol­lars in mind. Anger, abuse and failure sell. You can under­stand what would happen if a chef with a rep­u­ta­tion for being abu­sive showed up on set and sud­denly began hug­ging and praising everyone’s work habits. Viewers (and spon­sors) would drop that show like a hot potato.
As for Gordon Ramsay, the king of reality show chefs, his ridicu­lous internet memes (“You used so much oil, the U.S. is trying to invade the plate!” or “That pork is so raw, it’s still singing Hakuna Matata!”), where he appears bulgy-eyed and gaping, are famous among fans (and non-fans) of his show. Any self-respecting chef knows that you cannot moti­vate a staff or get them to follow you unless you earn their respect first. If you can’t earn that respect, you are a poor leader. Pack your knives and go home, Chef.

On the other hand, there must be a reason Ramsay’s show and those like it are renewed year after year: people like to think there’s a real com­pe­ti­tion going on, one that allows them to root for their favorite chef contestant.

There’s only one problem: never in the his­tory of restau­rants has there been a sce­nario where a cook had to com­pete with other cooks to sur­vive being chopped. It’s simply more enter­taining to see a cook being handed a mys­tery basket of Spam, lychee nuts, organic Tiger’s milk and ostrich eggs, and watch him try to make an appe­tizer in 12 min­utes using a can of Sterno, a ping-pong paddle and a hollowed-out horse­shoe crab. Ready, go!

So celebrity chef com­pe­ti­tions, Iron Chefs, Master and Top Chefs, Worst Cooks, Throwdowns and Extreme Cooking: none of it holds my interest, mostly because these shows are breeding a whole gen­er­a­tion of cooks who first want to be famous. When you com­pro­mise your craft and your skills for pub­licity, you’re less likely to dis­cover the true joys that come with cooking for and with people, instead of against them.

But Chef Ramsay wasn’t awarded the cov­eted Michelin stars for acting. His tal­ents as a chef are real and for­mi­dable. Nor does Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio earn his huge pay­checks from product endorse­ments alone; he is highly respected among his peers for atten­tion to detail and the con­sis­tently high quality at his restaurants.

And it’s unfor­tu­nate that this doesn’t come across in these ersatz cooking shows. Take one of the genre’s orig­i­na­tors, Emeril Lagasse. For years, I couldn’t stand to see a mug­ging Emeril on tele­vi­sion, hawking his knives and pots and pans, or his Cajun Bam! spice. Why was the crowd cheering and clap­ping simply because he threw parsley in a pan?

Then, as if by fate, I was chosen to work along­side him as a stu­dent cook at the tony Aspen Food and Wine Classic of 1997. What I dis­cov­ered was not a bois­terous cook from the Bowery, but a quiet, gentle person who was thoughtful and gen­uinely cared about the stu­dents. “It’s all an act,” I thought. And instantly, he won my respect. Finally, some real reality.

Robert Lhulier is exec­u­tive chef at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.

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