“No Kitchen Required”: Bungle in the Jungle

If you ever watched a grimacing Bear Grylls eat a huge roach in the Amazon rainforest and declare, “It tastes like putrid cheeeese,” then you know the voyeuristic thrill of foraging in the wild. A show debuting on BBC America this week, No Kitchen Required, gives that concept balls.

The series is a mix of Survivor, Top Chef, and The Amazing Race, with a stiff dose of the old BBC reality adventure show Last Man Standing thrown in. The premise: Three chefs drop into exotic locations around the globe, get a taste of the local food, and then set out to forage and cook out in the open. Local dignitaries judge their efforts, and host Shini Somara—a sort of brooding Padma—declares the winner.

The chefs seethe with testosterone. There’s British-born Madison Cowan, a Chopped grand champion whose job appears to be starring in TV cooking battles. Also Kayne Raymond, a Kiwi private chef (he's from Chopped, too) who looks like an extra from the movie 300, only without the leather man pants. And finally, New York chef Michael Psilakis of MP Taverna, who has a Michelin star and what Ruth Bourdain calls a chin-strap version of the scratchy soul patch (Psilakis is also the show’s co-executive producer).

In the opening minutes of tonight’s episode, set on the Caribbean island Dominica (home to the Kalinago people), the three competitors rappel down a sheer cliff face to a beach, where Somara waits to deliver their first challenge.

Cowan: “How you hangin’?”

Psilakis: “I’m hangin’ good."

It’s that kind of show—the boys' club of the modern restaurant kitchen, transported to the tropics. Fortunately, beauty shots of ocean sunsets and jungle waterfalls offer a bit of scenic relief from what would otherwise be a simple clash of the titans. And the semi-subliminal message in episode one is that victory does not always go to the swift, or the buffest. In tonight’s opening "Native Challenge" (the equivalent of a Top Chef Quickfire), which involves scrambling up a steep hill to dig yams, city boy Psilakis finds that slow and steady really does win the race.

To set up the main competition, the boys get a taste of Dominica’s Kalinago cooking at a little party thrown by some Kalinago dignitaries. It's a Caribbean cuisine built on starchy tubers, freshwater crabs and crayfish, and the manicou, a gnarly rodent that looks like a cross between a rat and a possum. By the end of the little shindig (lubricated by the local sugarcane fire water) the dudes have all picked a protein to be the star of their cooking challenge. (The guy who gets the manicou? That'd be Cowan, who's deathly scared of rats. Go figure.) Each chef hooks up with a local forager specializing in his particular creature, and the next morning they head out to hunt.

We see Raymond groping rocks in streams, feeling for crayfish, as Psilakis goes spearfishing and Cowan—by the conventions of reality TV—learns to overcome his fear of rodents.

By Act 4, the chefs are preparing to cook on a lovely red-clay beach about to be whipped by hurricane winds. Each guy comes up with a three-course menu built around his own particular ingredient. Each has been able to bring a chef’s knife and a single outside ingredient (I won’t spoil the surprise). And then it all just looks like chaos, as the wind and rain take their toll.

If you were hoping for cooking tips on manicou, you’re pretty much out of luck. Disappointingly, No Kitchen Required turns out to be just another reality drama about competition itself. Seconds after the boys have styled their dishes on slabs of wood and in rustic baskets, the focus shifts to the five-judge panel of Kalinago dignitaries, who taste not only for flavor but for how well the food, in Somara’s words, maintains “the integrity of their tradition.”

In theory, it’s like Star Trek’s Prime Directive against steamrolling native cultures. But the Kalinago judges seemed driven more by taste than by the integrity of anyone’s tradition. That's one of the show’s flaws. Though the element of cultural education saturates the show’s premise—in the nine episodes to come, the chefs will forage and simmer their way through Belize, New Zealand, Thailand, and New Mexico, among others—if the premiere episode is any guide, No Kitchen Required is more ass-kicking than anthropology.

Given that the element of competition between Cowan, Raymond, and Psilakis doesn’t seem all that interesting, that’s a shame. After all, if all we wanted to see were hunky bros throwing down, we could watch YouTube clips of American Gladiators.

No Kitchen Required airs on BBC America, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Times, 9 p.m. Central.

Image source: From left, Kayne Raymond, Michael Psilakis, and Madison Cowan, from BBC America

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