Meridian Star

Columns

March 13, 2013

Cooking competitively

MERIDIAN —     Over the last decade, cooking has become very competitive.

    For years, the only cooking competitions that existed were low-key chef contests that no one had heard of— mostly events where chefs with tall toques and a lot of red and blue stripes on their chef’s coats prepared gelatin-glazed foodstuffs. In those days most of the competition in cooking was unorganized, between restaurants and ego-driven restaurant chefs pitting themselves against other restaurant chefs over the course of a normal day’s business. Nothing was public. It certainly wasn’t televised. That is the dynamic I’ve known most of my career.

    Today, with the proliferation of cooking shows on the small screen, everyone is competing against everyone else. Chefs are battling chefs, contestants from all over the country are battling other contestants, and the networks are battling other networks for viewership and advertising dollars.

    The Food Network has done a lot to educate Americans about food, and they should be applauded for that. But they have also made cooking more competitive, and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

    It’s hard to turn a channel without seeing someone scrambling around the kitchen doing some type of “quick-fire challenge.” The shows are all over the dial— Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef: Just Desserts, Iron Chef, The Next Iron Chef, Next Great Baker, Master Chef USA, Cupcake Wars, Food Network Challenge, Chef Academy, Chopped, The Taste, Hell’s Kitchen, and even a show about The Worst Cooks In America.

    Maybe I’m just out of touch. After all, I did use a television “dial” reference in the previous paragraph.

    Full disclosure here: I was on an episode of Food Network Challenge as Mississippi’s representative for the Great Seafood Cook-Off competing against chefs from other parts of the country. It was my second time to do the challenge. I made it to the final cut, but not the top three. My friend John Currence was Mississippi’s representative the following year and won the title.

    It wasn’t something I lobbied for, but when the governor calls and asks you to represent your state, you do it. I didn’t enjoy it one bit. It was way more stressful than working a busy Friday night in the back-of-the-house though you are only preparing six plates.

    It’s not a sour grapes thing. I will be the first to admit that I am not cut out for competitive cooking. I am a terrible competitive chef. My scale and scope is limited. I know Southern food, Creole food, Italian food, and can fake my way through a very limited amount of French cuisine. That’s all I’ve ever needed to know. I eat and appreciate all cuisines, but I cook only a few.

    It makes me nervous. I get nervous watching it on television and I certainly get nervous competing. By nature I am an extremely competitive person. I love competition in all manner of sports, whether as a viewer or a participant. It just seems to me that cooking ought to be pleasurable. It should also be fun. Maybe cooking competitions are fun to some, not me.

    I have friends who’ve competed and done well: John Besh made it to the last round of The Next Iron Chef (he was ripped off and should have won). Cat Cora was, and is, the first female Iron Chef, and my neighbor from down the road in Poplarville, Whitney Miller— one of the sweetest, and most talented, young women you will ever meet— won Master Chef.

    They all do well.

    I am told that there was a girl from Laurel, Miss. on The Taste, so I will probably go back and catch a few of those episodes on demand or online.

    I haven’t seen The Taste, but Anthony Bourdain is on it, and he’s one of the most legit chefs on television. Also, Mario Batali is one of the original American Iron Chefs. If those two guys are a part of the trend, or movement, or whatever it is, then that holds some weight with me.

    It’s just not for me— either way— on the competitive side or the viewing side. So, for the meantime, I’ll leave the competition to the football players and the cooking to my kitchen.

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