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.
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!”
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.
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