As reality TV trends go, competitive cooking shows may be the strangest. TV watchers can see someone dance, hear someone sing, and watch people scheme. But what’s the point of watching someone cook—and others judging the cooking—without the ability to taste the food? Apparently that bothers fewer people than might be expected, as the number of food-based reality TV shows grows every year.
Generally, these shows break down into one of two categories: those that are self-contained, standalone competitions (procedurals, if you will) and those where the competition spans an entire season (serialized). Because there have been such a glut of contenders, some ground rules had to be made and are as follows:
- Shows will be separated into the two established categories and be judged accordingly.
- Spin-offs will be graded but not in competition. (Exception: Iron Chef has spawned both Iron Chef America, a full remake, and Next Iron Chef, a spin-off that is significantly different from the parent show. All are in competition.)
Let us begin.
Iron Chef (Food Network*, 1993-1999)
The granddaddy of all competitive cooking shows, it doesn’t get any better than watching a man eat a raw bell pepper while commanding chefs to design a multi-course meal revolving around sea cucumber. Iron Chef set the bar high, from the elaborate mise en scene that is Kitchen Stadium to the fundamental conflict of pitting the cream of the culinary crop against the common man. Twenty years later it continues to influence each new show to appear on the scene.
*Food Network imported the show from Japan in 1999.
TL;DR: The original, the best.
Cutthroat Kitchen (Food Network, 2013-present)
If there’s one asset that Food Network could never exploit enough, it’s the talents of Alton Brown. Brown’s smartypants attitude and perpetual smirk make him the wry Littlefinger to the network’s frighteningly chipper talent pool. Cutthroat Kitchen uses that air of scheming to great effect, as chefs compete in three elimination rounds of dictated dishes. While cooking though, they are also bidding (using the money they hope to win) to avoid ridiculous obstacles Brown announces with glee, like riding a bike to make ice cream or cooking in a child-sized kitchen. Cooking shows could do with more Machiavellian overtones.
TL;DR: Like Double Dare, but with knives.
Chopped (Food Network, 2009-present)
Chopped is among the finest of the genre, despite being 5 years old. The concept is three straightforward rounds: appetizer, entrée, dessert, composed from three mystery boxes filled with random crap and judged by whoever is sitting around the old Food Network lot that particular day. That said, the judges are usually considerably better than on your typical Food Network show, many of them being downright cantankerous. The tough judging, time element, and wacky ingredients make Chopped the ultimate laundry-folding TV, the only show of the category that would fit seamlessly into an early evening lineup of Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy.
TL;DR: Also educational. Teaches how to properly pronounce quinoa.
Food Feuds (Food Network, 2010)/Food Wars (Travel Channel, 2010)
Though not long for this world, both Food Feuds and Food Wars were shining examples of how stakes can be rooted in more than just monetary gain. Springing up at roughly the same time with essentially identical concepts, the shows traveled around the country to pit restaurants against each other for the right to call their version of a regional specialty the best. It was simple but compelling. That they lasted a mere season is probably an indication that straightforward isn’t the future of the medium.
TL;DR: This series should have a component that’s just New York and Chicago locked in perpetual battle over pizza and hot dogs.
Top Chef Duels (Bravo, present)
A completely unnecessary show that seemingly only exists to keep former Top Chef contestants in rotation, as though their copyrights were about to expire and Bravo needed to use them before Food Network snapped up the rights. It takes former contestants and pits them in head-to-head battle, not unlike a half dozen other shows currently on the air. That said, the personalities are familiar and the Bravo house style is snappy, so there are worse ways to spend your time.
TL;DR: Like a high school reunion, worth watching to see who’s going bald.
Chef Wanted (Food Network, 2012-present)
Another show where the stakes become less monetary and more emotional, Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell overcomes its grating host by watching four chefs compete to win, not money, but a job at the featured restaurant. Premiering in 2012, the show served as a reflection of the weak job market and each episode provided a tiny victory that didn’t come in the form of a lump sum of cash.
TL;DR: Stakes are higher without money on the line.
Food Court Wars (Food Network, 2013-present)
Similar to Chef Wanted, Food Court Wars features people competing, shockingly, for a year-long lease to a food court restaurant. Though it may seem laughable on the surface, the people generally competing seem to have a desperation not always present in shows of its kind and that fervor for a lucky break (yes, in the form of a food court restaurant) gives the show an intensity it wouldn’t typically garner. Not an asset to the show is the presence of Tyler Florence who feels like someone Food Network sought out in case they ever needed a spare Bobby Flay.
TL;DR: See Chef Wanted.
Iron Chef America (Food Network, 2005-present)
In researching this piece I came across an article from 2000 written, strangely, by now-famed author Jennifer Weiner, in which she asks the person who brought Iron Chef to Food Network whether an American version of Iron Chef could work. His response? “The way the Japanese produce it… they commit to it in a way Americans never could,” before going on to point out how often American remakes of imported shows fail miserably. (His example? Roseanne’s planned American version of Absolutely Fabulous. Starring Carrie Fisher.) (It was a strange time.) Suffice it to say, the guy was clearly a psychic because Iron Chef America is pale imitation that is happy to merely coast off the brilliance of the original.
TL;DR: Needs more dubbing.
Food Network Challenge (2005-present)
The most generically titled show in competition is actually a cake-making competition. No, I know. I’m as surprised as you are. That said, this is a fine enough show but ultimately, cakes just aren’t that interesting.
TL;DR: Needs more pie.
Cupcake Wars (Food Network, 2010-present)
It feels cheap to just say “see above” but this is essentially the exact same show as Food Network Challenge but with cupcakes. So… see above.
TL;DR: Cupcakes are so 2005.
Sweet Genius (Food Network, 2011-2013)
Sweet Genius breaks the mold a bit because instead of being the same setup as most other shows with elimination rounds and suggested ingredients, it mixes it up by also being batshit crazy and a little unsettling. Most of that was due to host Ron Ben-Israel, who in addition to being a pastry chef, has also been a professional dancer and a soldier in the Israel Defense forces so… yeah. To say that he’s eclectic feels like an understatement, as he makes Willy Wonka look like a pretty chill guy. As far as the batshittery, contestants are, yes, given a key ingredients for each round but they are also given an inspiration. And also when you’re eliminated you get told that you were no sweet genius. Burn.
TL;DR: If Roald Dahl had a cooking show.
Extreme Chef (Food Network, 2011-2012)
This show was so unnecessary it’s difficult to find words to talk about it. It was merely an unnecessary mash-up of Chopped and Fear Factor that also managed to be boring. Unacceptable.
TL;DR: If Bear Grylls had a cooking show.
Beat Bobby Flay (Food Network, 2013-present)
When this show premiered I anticipated it greatly until I realized that the title was complete and did not, in fact, end, “With A Tire Iron.” Instead it revolves around Bobby Flay’s “friends” rounding up strangers who must prove themselves worthy of attempting to beat Bobby Flay at cooking the item of their choice. All of this is done “lovingly,” of course, and definitely not passive-aggressively at all, and it’s definitely not saying anything greater that so many people in one man’s life are lining up to try and take him down a peg. Not saying anything at all. Ultimately, your enjoyment of this show is going to center around how much you like watching yet another testament to Bobby Flay’s ego, so your mileage may vary.
TL;DR: Even Bobby Flay’s friends hate him.
Throwdown! With Bobby Flay (Food Network, 2006-2010)
If you’re wondering where my beef with Bobby Flay comes from, this show would be it. For those unfamiliar, this show features Bobby Flay traveling around the country, preying on local chefs, having his people convince them of any number of things, generally that they’re being featured on Food Network before springing on them, oh, no, Bobby Flay is here to show you up by cooking your signature dish, try and beat him! Flay just comes off as a weird bully, who drives around looking to pick cooking fights and exclusively punching down and assuming that people will be thrilled to be exploited by him.
TL;DR: Bobby Flay is a dick.
Food Fighters (NBC, present)
Leave it to NBC to manufacture a show somehow more abhorrent than Bobby Flay’s cross-country assholery. Food Fighters has aired a mere handful of episodes but has already proven itself to be a strange amalgam of nearly every other cooking competition on TV, filmed on a set that appears to have been built by an underfunded community college theater department and hosted by a strangely realistic automaton of Adam Richman. You can tell it’s a robot because after each round, it asks the contestant what they’ll do with the money they won. There are five rounds every episode. And one contestant. You would be surprised how rarely the answer to the question changes, making the show not only deathly dull but also completely surreal. A winning combination you can only find on modern network television.
TL;DR: Adam Richman only knows how to communicate with 12-pound burritos.
Top Chef (Bravo, 2006-present)
Top Chef has reigned as the top (I’m sorry) cooking show on television for a reason. It’s magic combination of chefs on the cusp of greatness but who have not yet achieved it makes for the perfect blend of competence and catastrophe. The two challenge episodes and a stellar rotation of guest judges have proven to be an ideal model for the form and have been replicated by most of the shows that popped up in its wake. There is a refinement to the craft but just enough trash to keep people craving more and even in the face of the diminishing returns of latter seasons, it’s still the cream of the crop.
TL;DR: Still the classiest show on Bravo.
Top Chef: Masters (2009-2013)
Fine, but watching established chefs means it lacks any true stakes.
Top Chef: Just Desserts (2010-2011)
An ill-calibrated misfire. Why is it so hard to make a good show about desserts?
MasterChef (Fox, 2010-present)
MasterChef, on the other hand, is an example of an imported cooking show remade right. While the home cooks competing generally have a lower threshold for skill than your average Top Chef contestant, it’s fascinating to watch a competition between people for whom cooking is not their main thrust in life. Despite being another cog in the Gordon Ramsay/Fox empire, MasterChef lends an air of class, with significantly less screaming than Ramsay exhibits in just about any other setting. All in all, a competent and well-made, enjoyable show.
TL;DR: Probably the classiest show on Fox.
MasterChef Junior (2013-present)
Even better than its parent show, you haven’t lived until watching an 8-year-old make perfect sushi while you eat Rice Krispies and wonder if you remembered to put on deodorant today.
The Taste (ABC, 2013-present)
Despite having a truly abysmal first season, ABC’s The Taste made a stark second season turn around and reinvented itself as one of the finest cooking shows on television. By jettisoning obnoxious ex-Top Chef contestant Brian Malarkey and replacing him with brilliant and passionate chef Marcus Samuelsson and reshaping the competition to make the judges/mentors more integral to the cooking and the competitors, the show has established itself as so much more than just The Voice, but for cooking.
TL;DR: More Bourdain swears please.
American Baking Competition (CBS, 2013)
American Baking Competition aired in the summer of 2013 and you missed it and you should feel bad about it because it was the only cooking competition to make desserts and baking into compelling television. The key was variety and the competition included a variety of foods, cookies and cakes, yes, but also macaroons and bread and all kinds of crap. Still, it was hosted by Jeff Foxworthy which was about as horrible as you’re imagining. Ultimately, this show did right by sweets and still got canceled.
TL;DR: Desserts done right, to no avail.
Next Iron Chef (Food Network, 2007-2012)
Like Top Chef: Masters before it, Next Iron Chef is a fine show that’s an enjoyable enough way to spend the time but there are just fewer stakes involved when you’re watching established, successful chefs compete for an additional, empty accolade.
TL;DR: See Top Chef: Masters
The Great Food Truck Race (Food Network, 2010-present)
The next entry on the “This show is exactly like every other show on Food Network” list is The Great Food Truck Race which is notable not because it’s hosted by beta Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, but because it is capitalizing on the burgeoning food truck movement and, again, a show that rewards winners not just with money, but with an opportunity to keep their food truck and build something better for themselves.
TL;DR: People like food trucks.
Hell’s Kitchen (Fox, 2008-present)
Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen is absolute trainwreck television. It is loud and overblown, trashy and overproduced, all while being an absolute delight. And by delight, I mean horror. Watching this show is like rubbernecking a five-car pileup and it is impossible to look away. Ramsay’s ridiculously over-the-top screaming serves as the hilarious antidote to the forced cheer of the Food Network clan and is the ultimate guilty pleasure. This is the worst show I’ve seen every episode of.
TL;DR: People also enjoy yelling.
America’s Next Great Restaurant (NBC, 2011)
2011 saw NBC take a swing at the culinary game, likely after seeing the success Fox had found with Gordon Ramsay. From that swing came America’s Next Great Restaurant and it was not a homerun. It wasn’t even a single. It was kind of like a foul ball but when the ball was hit the bat broke and the barrel flew into the stands and knocked a woman unconscious. It was a lot like that. It shouldn’t have been as bad as it was but the product NBC put out was underwhelming. The judges, made up of Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia, Curtis Stone, and Steve Ells (founder of Chipotle) were flat and uninteresting and the show lacked flavor. But nothing could signify just how much of a flop the show was than the fact that the winner of the competition, who was promised three locations, had all of them closed within two months. America’s next great restaurant it was not. Cue sad trombone.
TL;DR: Back to the Food Network ghetto with all of you.
Food Network Star (2005-present)
This show is like seeing how the sausage is made if the sausage were strained, and shrill alien lifeforms attempting to approximate the emotions of real humans while also cooking and appearing folksy. It’s the worst.
TL;DR: The unholy womb that unleashed Guy Fieri on the world.
Worst Cooks in America (Food Network, 2010-present)
If Hell’s Kitchen is trainwreck TV in an entertaining way, then Worst Cooks in America is trainwreck TV in the trainwreck way. This is just strange and gross and unpleasant and not just because it’s a world in which Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell call all the shots.
TL;DR: FMK: Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, undercooked chicken.
Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off (Food Network, 2012-present)
In all their infinite wisdom, someone at Food Network decided it would be a good idea to put Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri on a show populated with D-list celebrities and then have them compete. Honestly, I don’t even know what to say about that except however bad you think this show is, it’s worse.
TL;DR: Did you know D-list celebrities like to cook? Do you care?
Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-off (FN, 2013-present)
The kids version, however, chooses not to eliminate children throughout the run which I think is a noble thing because apparently children have feelings too. Or so I’ve been informed.
Honorable Mention, as apparently a food competition needs to be between two or more sentient beings
Man v. Food (Travel Channel, 2008-2012)
Never in my life have I rooted so hard for an inanimate object to triumph over adversity and break a man’s spirit.
TL;DR: Food forever, man never.
And for you purists, here’s a straightforward ranking:
- Iron Chef
- Top Chef
- Cutthroat Kitchen
- The Taste
- Food Feuds/Food Wars
- Top Chef Duels
- American Baking Competition
- Next Iron Chef
- The Great Food Truck Race
- Chef Wanted
- Food Court Wars
- Hell’s Kitchen
- Iron Chef America
- America’s Next Great Restaurant
- Food Network Challenge
- Cupcake Wars
- Sweet Genius
- Extreme Chef
- Food Network Star
- Beat Bobby Flay
- Worst Cooks in America
- Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off
- Throwdown! With Bobby Flay
- Food Fighters