Reality TV has changed America’s television viewing habits, for better or worse. While some shows seem to bring out the brazen and talentless, one of the higher points on the reality spectrum has been the plethora of televised cooking competitions that have brought the cool back to cooking.

Cooking shows have long had their role on TV. Julia Child brought her fancy French recipes to America’s housewives in the 1970’s, and there have always been less famous regional chefs like Louisiana’s Justin Wilson content to serve up some corn-pone humor along with their brand of country cooking. But the reality TV genre has really upped the game for the cooking shows by bringing younger, trendier viewing audiences eager to see what the latest crop of reality cooking stars are dishing up.

Why We Can’t Change the Channel
Top Chef remains at the pinnacle of the pile, in part because of their knack of selecting the cream of the rising crop of chefs across the county and presenting them with culinary challenges that make them rely both on their training and innate wits to succeed. On Master Chef, viewers watching the chefs going through their paces can relate to similar cooking crises that may have occurred in their very own kitchens, albeit without the cameras.

In contrast, Hell’s Kitchen can bring aspiring chefs to their knees. Gordon Ramsey’s acerbic assessments of their cooking skills, or lack thereof, and propensity for screaming fits has inspired drinking games for the college crowd — you have to chug your drink every time Gordon screams at a contestant.

A New Generation
The viewers tuning in week after week to watch these shows are much younger and hipper than traditional viewers of most cooking shows over past decades, and many are less interested in the precise recipes that produce delicious dishes and more in the spicy drama cooked up by the contestants and high maintenance judges. They enjoy seeing tattooed chefs with funky haircuts, sleek chef jackets, and alternative lifestyles pursuing the culinary version of the American Dream.

The recipes are also far less staid on these shows than traditionally created on cooking shows and often feature ingredients that some cooks have never before used, or strange combinations of common kitchen staples. Foodies everywhere salivate at the chance to see chefs fumbling around trying to combine ingredients like catfish and beef into a top-notch dish. 

More Entertainment, Less Inspiration
Those watching the majority of these shows are doing it less for the inspiration it can bring to their own cooking repertoire and more for the entertainment value of seeing a group of hapless chefs confounded by the latest set-up culinary debacle. You know it’s a manipulated version far from true reality, but like passing a wreck on the highway, you have to look. And that’s the hook of reality TV. The cooking aspect is a common denominator most of us face every day, so watching the struggles of people not so very different from us makes it all the more fun. It’s also fun to see the contestants compete in locales around the country and even internationally, as The Next Iron Chef has done. 

The squabbling and backbiting among the contestants and the alliances that form and get cast aside are high culinary drama that have become a staple of the reality genre. Viewers cheer for the underdog relegated to Sous chef status and love to hate the bullies that storm into the kitchen like mad tornadoes. The controversy and criticism judges like Ramsey bring only serve to turn the heat up in the kitchen even more.

Love or hate the reality genre, it appears that it’s here to stay, at least for the present time, making it all the more reason to embrace your inner chef, top off your drink, don your toque and tune in once again to your weekly ration of culinary reality TV.


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