Food Network’s Alex vs. America is one of my favorite food competitions, in part because it borrows heavily from Tournament of Champions, and in part because it’s such an excellent showcase for Alex Guarnaschelli’s considerable talent and her competitiveness.
Like its predecessor Beat Bobby Flay, the reality TV cooking competition’s star, Alex Guarnaschelli, wins a lot. As much as I like Alex as a personality, I often find myself rooting for her competitors just because they’re the clear underdogs.
Her win record prompts people to ask: Is Alex vs. America rigged? Does Alex Guarnaschelli ever lose? Let’s discuss both.
The answer to the second question is: Yes, absolutely, Alex loses on Alex vs. America!
While Alex could be eliminated in the first round, her first-round dish has yet to place fourth when ranked by the judges, who taste blind. She does frequently win that first round.
However, in the “Alex vs James Beard Winners” episode, which aired April 16, 2023, Alex placed third in the second round, behind chef Jonathan Sawyer and chef Nate Appleman—the first time both round-two competitors have won money.
I think it’s notable that the only time she placed third was to two people who are not just outstanding chefs (James Beard-award winners, after all), but also people who’ve competed on reality TV cooking competitions. Nate Appleman placed third on the season of Next Iron Chef that Alex won; Jonathan Sawyer was recently a challenger on Bobby’s Triple Threat.
Alex has placed second before, too, more than once. In the show’s second episode, “Alex vs Beef,” Alex lost to Chef Kevin Lee.
Alex is, of course, very competitive. This is something she admits openly, both on the show and off. When I interviewed her last year, Alex told me,
“Everybody’s like: Let’s have a fun, friendly competition. And I’m like, You know what, don’t call me. I get immersed in the room; I get obsessed with the results. I have a high expectation for myself. I just do. It doesn’t mean anybody else has to be that way. It’s my process. And I think it’s my best and absolute worst quality at the same time.”
What contributes most, I think, to Alex Guarnaschelli’s outstanding record on her own show is that she’s had a lot of practice!
Alex has been competing on Food Network reality TV shows for years. After losing on a season of The Next Iron Chef, she won its fifth season in 2012, becoming an Iron Chef. She then competed on Iron Chef America, never mind other shows such as Tournament of Champions season 1.
Meanwhile, Alex has judged hundreds of episodes of Chopped and other shows such as Beat Bobby Flay and Guy’s Grocery Games.
Alex knows not only what makes for winning dishes and mistakes people make, but how judging works and what judges tend to look for.
All of that absolutely tips the scales to her favor, but certainly does not qualify as fixing or rigging the show for her.
Alex vs. America is even structured to give Alex’s competitors more of an advantage: Episodes are themed to the competitors’ expertise, and the three of them together choose the ingredients, style, and cooking time in the first round. (The winner of round one selects those things for round two.)
Unlike the blind judging on Tournament of Champions, who have no idea who’s even competing that season, the judges on Alex vs. America do know that one of the dishes belongs to Alex.
But Alex’s dish is one of four (or, in the second round, three) that the judges try.
I think that makes Alex vs. America more fair than Beat Bobby Flay, where the judges taste blind, but also know one dish is Bobby’s and the other is not, so it might be easier for them to—even subconsciously—identify Bobby’s cooking. (Bobby Flay has won 61.9 percent of the time across 409 competitions, according to Wikipedia’s math.)
Alex has competed far less on her own show: Season 1 had five episodes, season 2 had eight episodes, and season three has eight episodes scheduled so far.
Can Alex vs. America’s judges tell immediately which dish is hers because of her French training? It’s possible, but Alex told me that very question occurs to her while she’s cooking:
“Should I lean into my distinctive style, or should I try to hide behind something else? What if the judges don’t want to pick my dish? Or what if they do, and they’re looking for it? That’s a guess I can’t afford to make.”
In other words, it’s easy to second-guess herself, so it’s better to just focus on the dish at hand rather than trying to send signals to the judges, who may also second-guess themselves.
Alex also told me that it’s really not that easy to figure out who cooked what. “As someone who has blind judged and tasted on a lot of shows, you second-guess yourself and you’re often wrong,” she said. “I know it may seem obvious, but it truly isn’t.”
It may also seem obvious that Alex Guarnaschelli is a talented, experienced chef, which explains her wins. But to some people, it’s not, which is why they accuse her or the show of rigging the outcome. Why is it easier for some viewers to imagine a behind-the-scenes conspiracy rather than celebrate appreciate Alex’s impressive track record? That’s a question I don’t have an answer to.