“I can go home on my own show,” Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli says with surprise, and perhaps even a hint of annoyance, in the first episode of her new Food Network competition Alex vs. America.
Alex vs. America is a starring vehicle for an outstanding chef and competitor, and placing her talent, competitiveness, and candor center stage has created a first-rate reality competition.
I was first introduced to Alex as a judge on Chopped, where she’s been since its first season, offering sharp and sometimes cutting critiques.
But before judging that and other shows, from Worst Cooks in America to Guy’s Grocery Games, Alex was on the other side of the table.
In 2007, Alex was a chef up against Iron Chef Cat Cora on Iron Chef America, a battle Alex lost. But that didn’t stop her from competing.
She later went on to compete in The Next Iron Chef, winning season five and thus joining the show and taking the iconic title, and other shows, including Beat Bobby Flay and Worst Cooks in America, both of which she won.
Most recently, Alex hosted Supermarket Stakeout, which is basically Chopped in a parking lot, and instead of a pantry the contestants buy their ingredients from people leaving the store. It was okay, but did not play to her greatest television strength: as a competitor who loves competing.
After Alex won Next Iron Chef in 2013, I interviewed Alex, and asked about putting reputation on the line as a judge to compete again. “Chefs take that risk every day by having restaurants and making themselves vulnerable to public opinion,” she told me. “You only hope that people respect that you want to put yourself out there.” I think Alex vs. America will add to the respect people have for Alex, because it’s not an easy challenge.
Alex vs. America (Food Network, Sundays at 10) is produced by Lando Entertainment, which also produced the terrific Tournament of Champions, and that show’s sensibilities are infused into this new competition, from the fourth-wall breaking to the judging.
In each episode, Alex Guarnaschelli faces off against three talented chefs who all share a similar speciality, such as seafood or spicy cuisine.
In the first round, the three competitors choose the challenge, selecting things such as the central protein, the plating method, a type of cooking, and/or the time to making a dish.
This is similar to the giant wheel Guy Fieri spins in Tournament of Champions, but instead of a random outcome, the contestants are discussing and deliberately choosing things that they hope play to their strengths and not to Alex’s. The winner of the first round makes similar selections for the second and final round.
Top Chef finalist Eric Adjepong hosts Alex vs. America, casually walking around the kitchen and chatting with the chefs and with the camera.
Other Top Chef alum show up as judges: In the first three episodes, Tiffani Faison, Antonia Lofaso, and Michael Voltaggio are each paired with another judge, including familiar Food Network faces such as Chopped winner Cara Nicoletti or star chefs Bricia Lopez and Tetsu Yahagi. Other judges include Evan Funke, Valerie Gordon, Jonathan Grahm, and Jet Tila.
The contestants, including Alex, leave before the judges ever show up, and the judges don’t know who’s cooked what dish. They then rank the dishes from best to worst.
That’s how Alex can go home on her own show: If it’s her dish in last place after the first round, she’s out. In round two, if her dish ranks number-one, no one wins anything, but beating Alex earns a contestant $10,000 for coming in first and $5,000 for coming in second.
Both Alex and her show acknowledge something that a similar series, Beat Bobby Flay, does not: the advantage Alex and Bobby bring with them. Bobby Flay, for example, benefits not just from his talent, but from how familiar he is with the show’s kitchen, and perhaps even how familiar the judges are with him.
While Alex faces off against three chefs, she has experience they do not. “My expertise would be competing,” Alex says in the first episode, after acknowledging how the other three chefs are experts in seafood. That means she knows how to play the game, knows how to manage the clock, and is far more familiar with all of the television apparatus that’s required to make a reality TV show.
Alex vs. America is a better show than Beat Bobby Flay because it gives Alex a more-challenging task. Bobby Flay’s show is limited by its number of contestants: while its judges don’t know who cooked what, they have just two dishes in front of them, and obviously know a Bobby Flay dish is one of the two in front of them.
Like all pros, Alex doesn’t win every time she competes—and she takes every game seriously. Her respect for the contestants and their skill is evident.
“I don’t think I won. I think I might have come in last,” she says in the first episode, and this does not seem like a performance for our benefit. Just watch the discomfort on her face while she waits for decisions, and the reaction when she hears the results.
Self-doubt is real, and I’m glad the show includes those moments instead of editing them out, turning its star into a one-note character instead of a real person.
The production, too, uses a casual, loose approach: it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, and show us camera operators, PAs swapping out plates during judging, and a judge getting a makeup touch-up between dishes. This is all intentional, of course, but has the effect of making it all feel more honest.
While the first three competitors try to make four decisions, Alex wanders around the set. “I feel like a caged tiger. I just can’t stand still after a while,” she says, and that’s just the start to her candid and comical reactions.
After telling the contestants that she doesn’t want to use canned clams, she says, “Why did I admit that? My therapist and I have been working so hard on this.” Later, she tells a producer, “I hate the word ‘regret,’ Jesse. I only regret things like a couple of my old boyfriends.”
With this combo of joviality and serious competition, I wish the show had a better name. The “versus America” thing is unnecessarily bombastic, and too similar to other titles, such as Buddy vs. Christmas and Cooks vs. Cons.
It’s also ultimately meaningless, as is the giant map of the United States with each chef’s state highlighted.
It’s not like Alex is taking on 50 chefs in the first season, and the conceit falls apart completely when applied to the five episodes’ titles: “Alex vs Shellfish,” “Alex vs Beef,” “Alex vs Spicy,” “Alex vs Chocolate,” “Alex vs Noodles.” I suppose those are just shorthand for “Alex vs. Outstanding Chefs Known for Being Great at Cooking Shellfish”?
The one thing the title does right—and the show does very well throughout—is center Alex. This is a show about challenging one of Food Network’s finest and fiercest competitors to take on three outstanding chefs in their wheelhouse, but this time in her house. Finally.
Alex vs. America
Alex vs. America is a starring vehicle for an outstanding chef and competitor, Alex Guarnaschelli, and putting her talent, competitiveness, and candor center stage has created a first-rate reality competition. A
What works for me:
- Centering Alex Guarnaschelli as a TV personality, chef, and competitor, all in one show
- The competition’s structure, with contestants creating the first challenge and blind judging
- The talent level of the competitors
What could be better:
- A better title, since the “Vs. America” conceit doesn’t make sense
- More than five episodes. (Just five?!)