If there's one thing Americans love more than a no-holds-barred, back-alley knife fight, it's food. Combine the two and you have a burgeoning sub-genre of reality TV: the battle of culinary misfits. If cable networks could simply figure out a way of adding sex to that formula—and I'm sure they already have top minds working on it—then we'd undoubtedly attain a perfect equilibrium of opposing pandering forces resulting in absolute reality TV nirvana.
Can we not dream?
But for now we must make do with just food and violence. Two exemplars of this enticing recipe are in full swing right now: Fox's Hell's Kitchen and Bravo's Top Chef. (A third would-be competitor, Food Network's The Next Food Network Star, is not in season and not worth comparing. In a word, it is boring: boring contestants, boring judges, boring food. And this from the network that delivered unto us the original Iron Chef. Who's running that place, anyway? Oh, right—one of the boring judges.) The two shows—just like their networks—could not be more different in tone and appeal. But which chef show will reign supreme?
Hell's Kitchen stars the brutish Brit Gordon Ramsay, who's actually a top-tier chef and businessman, owning numerous Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.K., writing several bestselling cookbooks, and being awarded an Order of the British Empire. But what he's really known for on television is his inventive use of the word "bleep," particularly in reference to the incompetent boobs who dare appear on his show. Here's the gimmick: Two teams, divided between men and women, must prepare and serve complete meals each week at Hell's Kitchen (a studio kitchen). After each fiasco of a dinner service—during which Ramsay becomes apoplectic with rage—one of the 15 contestants is eliminated. The eventual winner is awarded the title of head chef at a prestigious restaurant.
Certainly, the first few times Ramsay explodes in the kitchen, unleashing his creative invective upon a cowering worm of a would-be chef, it can be sadistically entertaining. And there may very well be some parallels to the high-pressure world of high-end cooking; screaming at the newbies could be part of the ritual hazing process for breaking them in. But after a few episodes of this inevitable bullying, it's clear that Hell's Kitchen exists solely to grill its human sacrifices alive. The producers pack the larder full by casting complete idiots, choosing lame competitors that no one in their right mind would ever entrust to run a large kitchen but who will surely piss off Ramsay in different ways. Once you find yourself unable to root for anyone to win, watching their unfortunately inflated egos get skewered each week becomes pathetic (a favorite Ramsay word). Which isn't much fun.
On the other end of the cooking spectrum we have Top Chef, which clearly aims for a sophisticated audience that's interested more in food than in combat—not that it doesn't feature its own angry words, kicked chairs, and mini-soap operas. In recent years, Bravo has refashioned itself as the reality TV network for viewers who think they're too discerning for ordinary reality TV with creatively focused shows like Project Runway (damn you, Lifetime!). In Top Chef, the competitors are genuinely talented chefs with real credentials; their personality quirks are secondary to their talents. But only just. It's entertaining to see how their characters inform their cooking decisions, resulting in both surprising and disastrous plates.
Watching creative choices unfold may not sound like gripping TV, but Top Chef assumes that you're actually a foodie yourself. What would you cook if you had to base a meal on your favorite movie, or on one of the four elements, or on an animal at the zoo? The challenges are more often tests of skill and imagination rather than endurance or mere competence as on Hell's Kitchen. The chefs must cook not only for the judges but also for actual diners who didn't answer a casting call. The stakes seem much more "real." And the show's secret weapon is judge/coach/chef Tom Colicchio, who acts as stern taskmaster and tastemaker without resorting to drill-sergeant tirades.
Watching an episode of Top Chef makes you hungry for great food, while Hell's Kitchen leaves you feeling burned out. Diners' choice: Top Chef.