There is no denying that reality TV cooking competitions are here to stay, for better or for worse. What started with "Iron Chef" in Japan has evolved and blossomed into something usually entertaining and sometimes infuriating. Some cooking competitions focus mostly on the food, others on the contestants themselves and some (the worst ones) focus on the proposed celebrity of the judges and hosts for most of the show. There are even cooking competition shows that have launched the careers of celebrity chefs -- some of whom we are probably stuck with forever now.
Like everything, there's a hierarchy at play. Some of these are just better conceived than others. Some are more perfectly executed. And some are such ridiculous ideas that they end up scoring some points, just for being so much idiotic fun. Below, you'll find my ranking of reality TV cooking competitions, ranked in order from absolute worst to undeniable best. Which one's your favorite?
Throwdown! With Bobby Flay
This has got to be the single cruelest idea for a reality cooking competition of all time. "Let's send a successful professional chef, who also happens to be a millionaire and a producer at our television network into locally beloved businesses across America and have him try to beat them at their life's work on camera. Then let's broadcast it on basic cable." That is cold, Food Network.
Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off
I am pretty sure that this photo speaks for itself. These two people host a show together with a bunch of celebrities (like Coolio and Lou Diamond Phillips -- celebrities), who have little to no cooking experience. Let the wacky donkey sauce yummo fun commence.
The Next Food Network Star
In case you need a reminder, this show is why we have Guy Fieri.
The Worst Cooks In America
In addition to possibly being the most ill-conceived branding campaign of all time (did you guys not understand that you are intimating that WHOEVER you lay this text over appears to be the worst cook in America?), this show features a lot of Anne Burrell stomping around yelling at people. I guess... if you're into that kind of thing.
You want to judge a dish on a single bite? GO NUTS. But not even letting these people tell you what you're eating? You are insane. What is the point? This show will never make sense. Also Brian Malarky? That's our guy?
I've actually enjoyed the episodes of this show that I've caught. I have a big soft spot in my heart for both Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot-Bowles, and while I find Joe Bastianich's tough guy act to mostly be insufferable (come on, guy, we've all met your mom, we know you are actually nice), his presence doesn't disturb me too deeply. You know what's keeping me from watching this show? The bizarrely sweeping cinematography and set work that big network food shows insist on using time and time again.
I know, I know. This show was categorically idiotic. But it was so much fun in an insane way.
Ron Ben-Israel might be missing a few screws, which makes him really, really fun to watch. Add that to the fact that most pastry chefs act a little bit emotionally unstable on television, and I will watch an episode of this weirdness any day.
You either love it when Gordon Ramsay yells at people or you hate it. I can't get enough. And the resulting internet jokes his expletive-spewing lunacy has caused deserve a medal.
The Next Iron Chef
What I like about the show is that it separates the chefs from the TV personalities. For the most part, the chefs engaged at this level of competition can really cook, do so in professional kitchens often (if not every day) and you actually might get to learn something from them.
This show is like televisual popcorn. I never mean to watch one, and then I've watched three. There is no friendlier TV host than Ted Allen, and the meltdowns are just spectacular.
Like with "The Next Iron Chef," you are actually getting to watch chefs cook their hearts out. Sure, there's a heavy dose of editing for TV. There are beauty plates and service plates. They probably know the secret ingredient in advance. But the focus is, and will hopefully always be, on the food.
Same as above, only you learn stuff every time by watching people cook dishes that are totally foreign to you. They make so many custards in soup! I can't get enough!
Although I am fully aware that they are manipulating me emotionally with creative editing week after week, and I am also fairly certain it's jumped the shark 40-100 times over, I still think Top Chef has totally set the bar for how cooking competitions on TV should work. The editing is quick, but gets the important stuff, the focus is usually on the food, the judges are forthright, tough and also good at being on TV. It's still one of the most fun ways to watch food get made on TV, and I'm not quite certain what will ever beat it.