“Worst Cooks in America”: Extreme TV

Worst Cooks in America is the most populist hour in reality food TV. Just look at co-host Anne Burrell's hair (above), a flyaway nest of blond floss made immovable with gel. It's the hair of a school bus driver or mouthy, tough-love single mom, which is pretty much Burrell's role on the Food Network series that launched season three last month. She and Bobby Flay (a replacement for the steroidal-looking Robert Irvine) each mentor a team of inept home cooks in an arena the show calls culinary boot camp.

As the show's title suggests, the original 16 contestants—er, recruits—are pathetic. You doubt any one of them could bake a potato or boil spaghetti. Over the course of the series they compete as teams and against each other to pick up basic kitchen skills. Naturally, each week the biggest loser, so to speak, is booted off, Project Runway-style. Meanwhile, Flay and Burrell are competing, too, to see who proves ultimately the better teacher, just like the mentors/judges/stars in the singing competitions The X Factor and The Voice.

Flay is a genius bit of casting to go up against Burrell, who's won title of best mentor in the first two seasons of Worst Cooks. Flay’s the Irish high-school dropout from New York who put on chef's whites and acquired class (also, a mega-money franchise) from a predictable pile of Southwest ingredients. Burrell's a Lidia Bastianich protégé, whose most-likely-to-get-in-a-bar-fight persona on TV tends to obscure an impressive résumé in Northern Italian cooking. Then again, Burrell pretty much buried any claim to Tuscan fine dining last year with her book, Cook Like a Rock Star. Whether through her own design or the Food Network's, she's been groomed—literally—to be the female Guy Fieri. Obviously, in food TV it's the big gesture, not nuance, that sells.

In a way, Flay's and Burrell's own journeys from working-class nobodies to TV food royalty is a metaphor for the very premise of Worst Cooks: Learn how to cook, and you earn self-respect. What's problematic is how the series defines good cooking.

In last Sunday’s third episode of the season, “Extreme Flavor,” Flay’s Blue Team went up against Burrell’s Red Team in the quest not just for basic cooking skills but also for culinary self-expression. In the Skill Drill, the contest before the main event, the show's 12 remaining recruits had an hour to devise what Flay called a "signature pizza.”

If reality TV is all about mining personality clichés, this season of Worst Cooks strikes pay dirt. It’s a Canterbury Tales of contemporary American types, from Sarina, the clueless female who talks in little-girl singsong, to Vinnie, a sweaty paisano from Philly. There's laid-back Texas cutie David, and hot-chick Tiffany, who looks like her biggest concern might be for breaking a nail. Gayish Bennett is always ready with a Lindsay-Lohan-is-a-hot-mess quip, and Erica's a nasal-voiced buttinsky from the Outer Boroughs.

No surprise that the signature pizza challenge tended to reinforce stereotypes, from the disaster of Vinnie’s Philly cheese-steak fantasy to the catastrophe of Erica’s bagel inspiration, with lox, capers, and cream cheese. Self-expression, as it turns out, is not as easy as merely dumping globs of your character’s clichés on tragic-looking pizza crusts.

The show doesn’t stop to ponder whether teaching hopelessly impaired cooks how to make designer pizzas is part of any master class kitchen basics, but never mind. We’re soon off to the Main Dish Challenge, where the recruits are tasked to come up with their very own “extreme flavor” combination for grilled steaks (Flay’s team) and sautéed chicken (Burrell’s team).

The recruits look paralyzed as Burrell barks, “You MUST create an extreme flavor combination that is all your own!” Flay seems nicer than his fly-haired co-mentor, and is more helpful, attempting to explain the mechanics of extreme. “You can take things that are savory and pungent,” he says, “and mix them with things that are fruity and sweet and it works incredibly well.” Ah, got it.

Members of both teams deploy more identity clichés (a sweet and sour treatment for Asian Sarina, Southern country rustic for African-American Benjamin). I won’t tell you who wins (you can watch the entire episode here) or who has to depart after delivering a phony farewell about accomplishing their cooking goals (after just three weeks—say what?).

And yet, like all successful reality TV, Worst Cooks surprises for its capacity to make you care about people you spent 40 minutes deriding. But it's how the show defines good cooking that really made me want to cry. Learning to cook is about mastering a few basic techniques (roasting, braising, making a vinaigrette), not inventing bizarre sauces like wasabi pineapple relish to slather over a badly cooked rib-eye and calling it "self-expression." How much better off would the Worst Cooks recruits be if, instead of Burrell and Flay, their mentors had been Julia and Jacques? Now that's a show I could learn from.

See also: "Slice of Brooklyn" Tastes Warmed Over

Image source: Top, Anne Burrell and the Red Team; Flay and Burrell judge pizzas / Food Network

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.