Posted on: April 15, 2013 Posted by: Cole Ruth Comments: 0

Yesterday I went back to help test the protoype for that chef competition show again. This time, it was with real food. The day was part waiting-for-stuff-to-happen (as is the case when film crews are involved) and half cooking craziness.

I learned a lot. I learned first and foremost, that in the world of reality cooking TV, someone needs to start advocating for the chef.

Where has all the inspiration gone?
I’ve long been a fan of Top Chef, but my favorite reality show is Project Runway. Why? Because the results are impressive. Sure, some of the designers put together some pretty weird shit. But their designs represent them: it’s their artistic perspective writ in fabric and seams. Perhaps I say this about clothing design because I am not a designer (though I have sewn a few dresses), but I often think: “Wow.”

Project Runway makes this possible by giving the aspiring designers: 1. time to sketch; 2. choice of materials; 3. longer than 30 minutes to sew. True, they’re given relatively little time to construct a garment. But if they’ve used their sketching time “wisely,” and chosen their ingredients “wisely” as Tim Gunn is always advocating, they should be able to pull something off.

Let me break this comparison down a little further.

Great chefs think. They sketch. A dish can take weeks in development, sometimes longer. It involves trial and error, and sometimes the consultation and collaboration of fellow chefs.  Why is it that we assume a designer needs time to sketch, but a chef does not? One of the guys on the set yesterday put it well when he said, “Yeah, imagine if they said: here’s some nasty old fabric: sew! Who would want to watch that?”

Yet… someone is watching chefs do this with food.

Do you really want to eat that?
Most reality cooking shows give chefs the challenge of cooking with a specific ingredient. It makes for great T.V. How we love to hear the contestant say,  “I’ve never cooked with geoduck!” We lean in, riveted, now that certain doom is on the menu. Sometimes, we’re impressed; the contestant manages to create something edible. But after watching lots and lots of cooking shows, I can’t help but be reminded of the adage, “Garbage in… garbage out.”

Lastly, there is the issue of time. Sure, you can make a delicious heirloom tomato salad in 10 minutes. But a lot of ingredients can’t be made into masterpieces in 30 minutes. In fact, they are often barely edible. Even the best ingredients, but especially tough cuts of meat, need to marinate. They need to re-solidify in the refrigerator. They need to be broken down, braised, slow-cooked, pickled. Good food, as the Slow Food movement will tell you, takes time.

Feed me
Perhaps America’s T.V. watchers do not share my point of view, but I know that there are a lot of chefs out there who do. We want better food. A lot of chefs I talk to long for the old-style demos, for education. I would argue at the very least for something inspirational, a project runway for food. I want to see chefs playing with their food, making mistakes, coming up with ideas. I want to see them given free reign over their ingredients. And most importantly, I want there to be time to cook those ingredients properly. Sure, you’d have to throw in a few challenges. You’d have to muck with the process somewhere. You’d have to add drama or it won’t be fit for T.V. But I can’t be the only one who wants to see results that aren’t just edible – results that inspire me and the next generation of chefs to make better food.

An example of a Grant Achatz sketch from Alinea, and the resulting dish.
An example of a Grant Achatz sketch from Alinea, and the resulting dish.

The photo at the top and this one are taken from this great article in Saveur.