Their connection to reality is non-existent
It was during the first season of The Restaurant with Rocco DiSpirito that I officially signed off from watching any cooking reality show.
I knew Chef Rocco. I had eaten his food, admired his career trajectory and had genuine admiration for my fellow Culinary Institute of America alum. But this show, with its sensationalized view of opening and running a restaurant, was too staged for me to swallow. From the sponsorship of a glistening SUV (which the chef drove each episode) and American Express endorsement, to his always perfect hair and Mama making her famous meatballs alongside caricatures of hardcore New York cooks, there was simply no reality at all.
First off, any tenured Big Apple cook can tell you that most of the high volume kitchens are staffed with Latinos—lots of them. When I “staged” (apprenticed) at Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill just before graduation from CIA, I was struck by two things: in a kitchen of almost 35 cooks, there were only two women, and nearly all the cooks were of Latin-American descent. They came up through the ranks and, trust me, earned their stripes and stations on the line. The front of the house (service staff) had none of the distracted looks of aspiring actors or beauty contest winners that peopled Rocco’s place. At Gotham, every staff member was a gliding, well-greased cog in the machine—with no drama. That kind of calm orchestration wouldn’t exactly sell on television.
Cooking competition/reality shows may contain a trace or two now and then of things you’ll see in a real day in the life of a restaurant, but they are largely scripted, staged, filmed, and heavily edited with major sponsors and millions of advertising dollars in mind. Anger, abuse and failure sell. You can understand what would happen if a chef with a reputation for being abusive showed up on set and suddenly began hugging and praising everyone’s work habits. Viewers (and sponsors) would drop that show like a hot potato.
As for Gordon Ramsay, the king of reality show chefs, his ridiculous internet memes (“You used so much oil, the U.S. is trying to invade the plate!” or “That pork is so raw, it’s still singing Hakuna Matata!”), where he appears bulgy-eyed and gaping, are famous among fans (and non-fans) of his show. Any self-respecting chef knows that you cannot motivate a staff or get them to follow you unless you earn their respect first. If you can’t earn that respect, you are a poor leader. Pack your knives and go home, Chef.
On the other hand, there must be a reason Ramsay’s show and those like it are renewed year after year: people like to think there’s a real competition going on, one that allows them to root for their favorite chef contestant.
There’s only one problem: never in the history of restaurants has there been a scenario where a cook had to compete with other cooks to survive being chopped. It’s simply more entertaining to see a cook being handed a mystery basket of Spam, lychee nuts, organic Tiger’s milk and ostrich eggs, and watch him try to make an appetizer in 12 minutes using a can of Sterno, a ping-pong paddle and a hollowed-out horseshoe crab. Ready, go!
So celebrity chef competitions, Iron Chefs, Master and Top Chefs, Worst Cooks, Throwdowns and Extreme Cooking: none of it holds my interest, mostly because these shows are breeding a whole generation of cooks who first want to be famous. When you compromise your craft and your skills for publicity, you’re less likely to discover the true joys that come with cooking for and with people, instead of against them.
But Chef Ramsay wasn’t awarded the coveted Michelin stars for acting. His talents as a chef are real and formidable. Nor does Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio earn his huge paychecks from product endorsements alone; he is highly respected among his peers for attention to detail and the consistently high quality at his restaurants.
And it’s unfortunate that this doesn’t come across in these ersatz cooking shows. Take one of the genre’s originators, Emeril Lagasse. For years, I couldn’t stand to see a mugging Emeril on television, hawking his knives and pots and pans, or his Cajun Bam! spice. Why was the crowd cheering and clapping simply because he threw parsley in a pan?
Then, as if by fate, I was chosen to work alongside him as a student cook at the tony Aspen Food and Wine Classic of 1997. What I discovered was not a boisterous cook from the Bowery, but a quiet, gentle person who was thoughtful and genuinely cared about the students. “It’s all an act,” I thought. And instantly, he won my respect. Finally, some real reality.
Robert Lhulier is executive chef at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.