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Netflix’s Pressure Cooker is more Big Brother than Top Chef

Netflix’s Pressure Cooker is more Big Brother than Top Chef
Pressure Cooker's most-annoying contestant, Sergei Nicholas Simonov (left), and Robbie Jester cooking in the show's kitchen (Photo by Terence Patrick/Netflix)

The trend in cooking competitions has been to embrace the ethos popularized by The Great British Bake-Off: warm, friendly competition, where contestants’ love and support for one other oozes off the screen. There may be a winner and eliminations, but there’s no callousness or cruelty.

Shows like Top Chef have taken a turn into these nicer, gentler unscripted lanes, and Netflix has followed the trend. Even Nailed It, which sets impossible challenges for its contestants, does so playfully.

While Netflix has an array of cooking shows—some that have followed in well-worn ruts established by Food Network and other shows (Final Table was Masterchef, Iron Chef was Iron Chef), others that are just incoherent (Easy Bake Battle without Easy Bake Ovens)—they’ve all taken place in an encouraging environment.

Netflix is now forging a brave new path, bucking the trend and instead creating a new competition, Pressure Cooker, that immediately creates an antagonistic atmosphere.

The show folds a talent competition together with a social game, two sub-genres of reality TV that I love very much.

But this is not an artful selection of the best elements, folded together and baked into something warm and delicious. Instead, it’s formats pureed into gray slop.

It’s effectively Big Brother with cooking challenges, though Pressure Cooker is a far more palatable and watchable version of Big Brother than CBS’s annual sewer main break. But as a culinary competition, it’s mostly nonsense.

The chefs of Pressure Cooker gathered around their table
The chefs of Pressure Cooker gathered around their table (Image via Netflix)

Pressure Cooker—not to be confused with the super-short-lived 2014 FYI show Pressure Cooker, or the acclaimed 2008 documentary Pressure Cooker—has an novel idea at its core: contestants judging each other.

As the line between judge and contestant has eroded on Food Network, peers judging peers has become more prevalent. It usually works because they’re professionals who know what their TV job is, and also understand what they’re judging. They can be specific and supportive.

But place that kind of critique inside a social game, and it falls apart immediately.

Pressure Cooker comes from Mission Control Media, the production company behind the still-missed makeup competition Face Off, which centered the craft and challenges that came from trying to create art in a high-pressure, time-limited situation. We rarely saw the contestants outside of the workroom or presentation stage.

Pressure Cooker does the opposite, minimizing craft in exchange for drama, inside a production that feels is far more Hell’s Kitchen (someone even makes a Wellington!) than Top Chef.

The chefs live in a soundstage house that has a large kitchen where they cook and vote each other out. The winner gets $100,000; the losers, well, I wouldn’t be surprised to one or two on Netflix’s upcoming all-star dating competition, in that they’ve been cast for character.

Just as there are no judges, there’s no host. The contestants get their challenges via a ticker-tape machine, so everyone says “We got a ticket” like Love Island dodos say “I got a text!”

A person's fingers reach for a ticket from a printer. The ticket says: "Kitchen. Chef. 3/25/22, 7:13 AM

# CHEFS, THIS MORNING, YOU WILL VOTE TO DECIDE WHO BECOMES THE NEXT BLIND TASTER. # THE CHOSEN CHEF WILL BE [illegible] ELIMINATION.
# CHEF RENEE'S NOT ELIGIBLE [illegible]
ALREADY HAD IMMUNITY IN THE TURF CHALLENGE"
Pressure Cooker’s ticket printer delivers challenges, like this one from episode 5 (Image via Netflix)

While there are undoubtedly producers interacting with the contestants at some point, there’s no visible authority or structure, which almost immediately invites the worst, like an unfortunately familiar dynamic when a white man, unprompted, decides to interrupt his own cooking to question a woman of color’s work.

“You’re cooking your fish 30 minutes beforehand, chef?” Sergei asks Christan. “There’s a method, sir,” she responds, instead of, say, telling him to find a new use for an immersion blender.

Once the chefs are actually invited to critique the final dishes, the confusion begins.

Pressure Cooker goes to great lengths to try to convince us that what’s happening on the show somehow mirrors real life. “You can get a lot of progress or a lot of failure based on what your peers think about you,” Robbie says. “That sort of peer criticism is invaluable.”

Yet immediately we’re told to not trust these critiques. Jeana, for example, knows she’s botched her salmon Wellington by undercooking the pastry, but gets praise for it, so she immediately suspects she cannot trust the critiques.

If we can’t trust their evaluation of each other’s work, what is its purpose? It’s there only to fuel a game: The chefs rank each others’ dishes, which creates a bottom three, who are then up for elimination.

That is not the actual format, though, because Pressure Cooker immediately drops that, replacing the path to elimination by something different in every episode. After two house votes, the third elimination is a blind-tasted cook-off—not a bad idea, but why then and not earlier?

In the second episode, when the chefs split into two teams, they’re not cooking for each other, but for the person eliminated in the first episode, who comes back to judge, because if there’s anyone qualified to judge their dishes, it’s the person they all thought was the least-talented.

The losing team’s leader becomes Head of Household and nominates team members for eviction. That means the second elimination isn’t based on cooking at all, because no one voting actually tasted any dishes. “I feel like one dish probably did taste better,” one contestant says, and then several start talking about whether they’ll vote on personality. Of course they will!

Top Chef certainly changes things up, mixing individual and team challenges. But it’s all inside a coherent frame. There’s not one here, alas.

The tone and pacing is also uneven. That first eliminated chef judges the episode-two challenge blind, and offers decent critique. But the whole sequence is excruciating viewing: we sit with one person eating by themselves, trying 10 dishes, talking out loud, writing comments, interspersed with more formal interviews where they talk about the dishes in interviews. Then we have to listen to the other chefs read all of those comments and react to them.

Pressure Cooker has its moments: People lie about their votes, a guaranteed way to generate intrigue, and there’s a wild scene when a contestant is talking shit about someone in the confessional, and then that person opens the door and walks in.

The chefs seem to be cooking like the care, but I’m not sure why: it’s superfluous. The cooking is similar to that in Hell’s Kitchen, where it and the restaurant exist just for Gordon Ramsay scream at people.

“This is, at the end of the day, a culinary competition,” Pressure Cooker’s Sergei says in the second episode. “This isn’t just about alliances and friends, and why would you keep somebody who made a clear mess of a plate?”

I don’t have an answer after watching three of the eight episodes. In a talent competition, like Drag Race All-Stars, you might actually keep someone who’s not good because they’re easier to beat in the end. Or you might keep the most-talented people to challenge yourself.

Pressure Cooker is unconcerned about the actual food or the talent of its contestants, and that makes it hard to care at all.

Pressure Cooker

Adding cooking to Big Brother’s format just doesn’t work, so as a culinary competition, it’s a D

What works for me:

  • The central idea of chefs judging each other

What could be better:

  • The lack of an overarching structure or format
  • The lack of consistency in eliminations and judging
  • The pacing

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion: your turn

I think of writing about television as the start of a conversation, and I value your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

To share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space, I’ve created these rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to those rules.

Happy discussing!

Lisa

Sunday 15th of January 2023

You are clearly provoking racism by your remark about like an unfortunately familiar dynamic when a white man, unprompted, decides to interrupt his own cooking to question a woman of color’s work."

There is no need for that comment other then to provoke viewer emotions. Please stop that.

The show was no where like Big Brother and throughout it was quite respectful while game play happened.

Report factual and not for immediate reactions as that will take you farther in life.

joe

Tuesday 7th of February 2023

@Lisa, I completely 100% agree with your comment. It was ridiculous of this reviewer to even insinuate a racist quality when, honestly, the chef was just questioning a technique (it happened throughout the show). Very, very poor journalism and just sad that Adam would make such an ignorant comment. Overall, I liked the show and watched all eight episodes.

Michael Lee

Friday 13th of January 2023

I couldn't agree more with your review. If they wanted another big brother, just do big brother. It's kind of disingenuous to pretend that the food mattered when it only ever mattered on a handful of occasions that there were blind taste tests. Especially considering that the finals was 100% social game.

Tony L.

Friday 13th of January 2023

I must have been watching a different show than the rest of you. I completely enjoyed it and felt doing a mash-up of a cooking show and Big Brother was a clever spin on tired formats. I thought it was a great cast (loved Renee and Ed!) and completely disagree that the cooking is irrelevant. The people who make the strongest dishes are safe (cooking great can save you from elimination) and the weakest dishes put you in jeopardy which is then when your relationships come into play in order to try and save you. It's just like real life - great skills aren't always enough to get ahead in this world. Relationships matter. I respect everyone's opinion, but I loved it and binged the entire thing in 24 hours.

NJ

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

This show is a perfect representation of today world. "it doesn't matter what and how much you know but. Who!!! You know. Please don't make 2nd season.

Michael Hope

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

The show got me hooked up for episode 1 to 8. I show a lot of growth for each chef. But the final episode, the judging was somewhat like they vote someone to win becuase of "sympathy" and "politics". I thought this show is about skills, creativity and innovation inside the kitchen. But in the end, it is all about drama, alliance, politics and comfort. Don't bother watching it. I gave it a thumbs down because the show is not fair. Giving the judging to so called friends. Fairness is thrown out of the window.