Two new food competition series borrowed elements from Survivor and The Amazing Race, but have had wildly different results evolving the food competition format. Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates is shrill and annoying and fumbles nearly every opportunity it had, while BBC America’s just-concluded No Kitchen Required is a truly fresh take on the cooking competition.
I was really looking forward to Around the World in 80 Plates, with the producers of Top Chef, Magical Elves, combining their show’s format with The Amazing Race. Alas, is disappointing in many ways, and I’m not even counting the casting of host Curtis Stone (WHY, REALITY GODS, WHY?) and the severe underuse of Cat Cora (she’s mostly reduced to nodding at whatever Curtis says).
There’s been some improvement since episode one, but the premiere episode was almost unwatchable because it simply sent a bunch of asshole chefs off to fight in other countries. Everything good about Top Chef was gone, replaced by everything bad about Amazing Race, as the cast blows through countries and challenges before taking over a restaurant to be judged by locals.
The opening credits say it’s a “game of skill and strategy,” but even though the chefs vote each other off, this isn’t Survivor, it’s just labeling their conflict as strategy. And the actual game play makes it feel like the producers are just making it up as they go along; a tie-breaker last week appeared to take everyone by surprise and made little sense. Worse, the cooking isn’t particularly interesting or explained well, and the well-known local chefs critique but don’t have any impact on the outcome.
There’s so much potential: What if the chefs spent time in each place actually learning, or were tasked with copying or creating their own spin on certain dishes? What if the local cuisine was actually explained and described? But that’s not a formula for fast-paced screaming and sweating.
BBC America’s No Kitchen Required heads in the opposite direction, and it’s thoroughly refreshing, in no small part because it’s actually respectful to the local cultures it uses for its challenges–and I’m not just talking about the donations the production makes to locals (although that’s a nice touch). Instead, it immerses both the contestants and us in the culture instead of just using it as a backdrop for jerks to run through.
The show is from Notional, the company behind Chopped, but it only borrows slightly from that series. The format is simple: The three chefs travel to a remote location someplace in the world and, after a brief challenge, meet with an indigenous tribe or native people and learn about their food at a feast. The next day, they hunt with a guide for their protein, and then prepare a meal outdoors (hence the title) using only a limited pantry. Their dishes are supposed to be inspired by and keep the integrity of the indigenous dishes, and they are judged by the panel of their hosts. (Watch it online.)
The first challenge is usually a simple physical task that determines who gets to select their protein first, and the winner of the cooking challenge gets nothing, which means it’s less of a competition and more about watching people do impressive work. The elements provide the biggest obstacles, both during their cooking and during the hunt.
Catching and killing their own protein is the most interesting part of each episode because everything from the terrain to the animals change, and because it’s an actual challenge–sometimes they fail and have to improvise. It’s also really awesome way to return cooking shows to the source of food, rather than, say, just shopping for meat that was raised in a factory farm somewhere.
The host is forgettable, except that most of her lines were recorded in post (generally not a good sign), but the three chefs are interesting enough to carry the show, even when their local guides don’t speak English. Madison Cowan won Chopped‘s first championship, and shows less annoying cockiness here, while Michael Psilakis reminds me so much of Michael Simon that I cannot focus on anything else about him. Kayne Raymond is by far the most interesting, both in his enthusiasm and skill, and he shows more of his depth on-screen.
The series doesn’t yet feel like must-watch TV, in part because the standalone episodes don’t build momentum week to week, but it’s fun to watch and a well-produced show in its first season has room to grow, and I hope the network gives it that chance–and broadens the casting to include women.
Ideally, I’d love No Kitchen Required to borrow from 80 Plates and replace its three-person, no-consequence format with 10 or 12 chefs, one of whom is eliminated in each location, to give the series a bit more tension. Everything else should stay, though, because there’s a lot to like–and if you’re Bravo, a lot to learn from about how to make an international cooking show.
No Kitchen Required: B+