Around The World In 80 Plates debuts tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. Eastern.
While longtime fans of Bravo’s Top Chef franchise continue to bemoan its gradual deterioration in quality over the past few seasons, it seems there are very few cooking shows willing to step up and decisively grab the toque from its head. Around The World In 80 Plates, a sort-of-but-not-really spinoff of the long-running series, seems content to be Top Chef’s globe-trotting, ADHD-addled little cousin, but in many ways it signifies all the ways its forebear has started to slide: relying way too much on convoluted challenges and downplaying the actual cooking. I’m not sure if some misguided marketing consultant recently informed the Magical Elves that “food was so over” or what, but the resulting onscreen juvenilia is dismaying.
The premise is promising enough: 12 chefs visit a new international city every week, get a crash course in the local cuisine, and then work in groups to take over a restaurant and recreate its most time-honored favorites. Obviously, there shades of The Amazing Race here, and anyone who’s watched a season of America’s Next Top Model will see a resemblance to the “go-sees” episodes, in which the cartographically challenged modeltestants run around a strange city, fighting jet lag and traffic in order to make it to a required number of design houses and agencies within a given time period. Hosts Cat Cora (“She’s a total badass,” New York chef Chaz Brown helpfully informs us,) and Top Chef Masters host Curtis Stone (“He’s hot,”) don’t really have much to do other than send the contestants off on their masochistic misadventures.
I’ve got nothing against these kind of scavenger-hunt formats, but in the case of 80 Plates, it completely works against what should be the point of the whole show: Providing a vicarious foodie world tour for the viewer—like No Reservations with more obligatory scheming. In the première episode, the chefs arrive in London and are immediately divided into two teams, then sent on a “course” to three different pubs, where they must eat three different food/drink combinations. But because a ridiculous “race” element (only the team that completes the course first gets to use the “exceptional ingredient” of the week), the episode quickly devolves into a sloppy speed-eating contest—and a hammered one, in the case of the première. At the second stop, the chefs are told they can trade the assigned steak and kidney pie dish for a yard of ale, and figuring that waiting for the pie to be prepared will slow them down, both teams opt for the ale. (If you’re unfamiliar with what a yard of ale is, here you go.) It ends up shooting them all in the foot—not only because they then must immediately stagger drunkenly to a third location and down a massive plate of fish and chips, but later, when they are asked to make steak and kidney pie for the takeover challenge, none of them know what it tastes like. But it’s okay, because it’s not like this is a cooking show or anything.
Around The World In 80 Plates is both more ambitious and pedestrian than your average cooking competition—since the hosts and judges don’t have a say in who wins each week, the goal is to appease the common local palate, and so those occasionally exhilarating bursts of boundary-pushing creativity that have kept fans of Top Chef hooked for years are sorely missing here. (When I wrote “recreate time-honored favorites” earlier, for the most part I literally meant “recreate.”) But if you were expecting to trade ingenuity for information, prepare for disappointment: This is Bravo, not PBS, and it’s clear that manufacturing “drama” is priority No. 1 here, not learning about the intricacies of international cuisine. If I knew nothing about pub food and the culture around it prior to watching the London episode, I wouldn’t be able to tell you a whole lot more afterwards—much less feel particularly inspired to head to the kitchen.
Even amid all the speed eating, the most stomach-churning moment of the première has nothing to do with food. When one team welcomes the judges to their pop-up pub, the host announces that they have rechristened the establishment “British Love, American Pride.” The locals are of course, horrified—it’s terrible luck to rename a pub, much less make it sound like some sort of slimy expat dating service—but our chefs were too occupied with obstacle courses and drinking contests to know that. It doesn’t take long for it to dawn on you that you’re really just watching a bunch of loud, sweaty, narcissists tear through the streets of a strange city, stuffing plates of blood pudding down their gullets in record time. Forget foreign policy and tacky sightseeing busses—Around The World In 80 Plates may be the worst PR for American tourists since the invention of the fanny pack.