The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Food Network's “Worst Cooks” Revisited

Even More Unbelievable

A few years ago, I wrote about “Worst Cooks In America,” a program that airs (errs?) on Food Network. At the time I thought maybe they were just going for ratings by presenting a “reality” show that was simply unreal. Now, as the pastiche enters its eighth season, it's even more unbelievable.

I once performed in a live show wherein we brought up a guy from the audience to participate in the proceedings. He was supposed to be just an average guy suddenly thrust into the spotlight and put in an uncomfortable situation. He turned out to be as dense as a mud brick and the comedy that ensued centered on making him look inept and foolish. He was, of course, what we in the business call a “plant” or a “shill.” He was an actor on the payroll to perform the role of an exceedingly naïve “common man.” And I'm sorry, but the producers of “Worst Cooks” will never convince me that the same thing isn't going on on their show. Why else would there be questions about acting experience on the audition form? “Have you ever acted, performed or appeared on a TV show (scripted, non-scripted, series, game, talk, documentary, etc) or in a film?” “If YES, please list the last three most recent appearances you've made and when.” Season 6 “winner,” Alina Bolshakova, is an experienced actress with a full resume on IMDb.

Last night, I watched a woman have a spasm over measuring ¼ cup of liquid. She claims to not even own a measuring cup and couldn't fathom the concept of “one-quarter.” She wound up measuring out 1 ¼ cups instead, to predictably disastrous results. Really? If this supposed simpleton can't grasp the concept of quartering a whole, I want to be around when she's divvying up the dollars. Then there was the brain trust who couldn't figure out “finely chopped”; she kept saying “FIN-ly” and blamed it on her poor command of English. When “FINE-ly” was finally explained to her, she still didn't understand the concept. Nor was she able to understand “halved.”

Things like “I can't read a recipe” and “I don't understand the words” are the common excuses employed among contestants to explain their abject stupidity. Guess they have a real problem with “some assembly required,” too, huh? Better keep them away from IKEA.

Then there's painful ignorance. When asked to get a plantain from the pantry, the “truck driver” says, “What the hell is a plantain?” And when he's shown one, his response is, “Well, why didn't you just call it a banana in the first place.” Don't tell me it's an honest mistake. He wasn't asked to explain what a plantain was, where it came from, and how it would be used in a recipe. He was asked to pick one out of a limited group of foods. Has he never been in the produce section of a grocery store? I don't know the first thing about an intake manifold, but I can point to one at Auto Zone.

No, I think the producers of “Worst Cooks” deliberately coach these people to be as dumb as humanly possible so that people like me will sit there screaming at the TV and cringing at the antics of apparent idiots who would dump an entire jar of seasoning into a single dish. Even if these folks aren't all professional actors, they are being coached to play to extreme type. The geek, the nervous nellie, the wannabe sexpot, the gay flamer, the clueless blonde, the hunky-but-dumb guy – they're all there every season. To those of us who know how to cook, it's kind of like watching a horrible train wreck week after week. And I think that's the point.

I started cooking when I was seven. I say “cooking,” but there was a lot of Minute Rice, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and frozen French fries involved in those early efforts. It took me years to graduate to more complex and sophisticated dishes. And yet, here we have these alleged kitchen hazards who can barely boil water watch a chef prepare a dish even I, with fifty-plus years of experience, would be reluctant to attempt. They watch one demo and then replicate the dish on the first try in sixty minutes or less. Uh-huh. I believe that one.

Just like I believe that cadres of kids and amateurs on all the myriad cooking competition shows that overpopulate the airwaves these days just instinctively or perhaps miraculously know how to whip up a perfect Bearnaise sauce from scratch. You see it all the time; they are turned loose in the pantry and they know exactly what to pick out and exactly how to use it. No recipes, no cookbooks, no instructions. The average twenty-year-old grocery clerk or ten-year-old grade-schooler just naturally knows how to turn out duck a l'orange, don't they? Or steak au poivre? I've lived in the South. Everybody there knows how to prepare a perfect clam chowder without ever once looking at a note, and beef wellington is something anybody can fix, right? C'mon! In the past few years it's been revealed that shows like “Master Chef,” both the junior and senior versions, actually give intensive cooking lessons to all the “amateur” contestants before they go on the air. You can't tell me the same thing isn't happening over at “Worst Cooks.” Except there they are being instructed to look just stupid enough to be real – or unreal – to be in keeping with the theme of the show. Then, after just a few weeks of stumbling and bumbling around like hopeless stereotypes, they are suddenly able to pull off a five-star Michelin dinner that fools a panel of high-powered food experts. Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght! You know, it is said that it takes a good singer to sing badly. The same holds true for actors, and the actors on “Worst Cooks In America” are among the best.

You do know, I hope, that there are websites out there pandering to people who want to be “reality” TV stars? They instruct wannabes as to the ins and outs of getting on a “reality” show. That just makes it all seem that much more “real,” right? And when the producers put out a casting call, they don't pick the boring average people. I mean, who wants to watch somebody normal? No, the entertainment value is in the oddballs and the extremists, the ones who often pay a service to put them out there in front of casting directors. You don't honestly believe that the fifty-something woman who can't figure out a measuring cup is for real, do you? She's as real as the producers and directors want her to be.

Go ahead. Watch “Worst Cooks In America.” I do. It's set up on my DVR every Sunday night. I'll likely keep watching and screaming and staring in disbelief because that's what I'm being programmed to do. We're all being programmed to lower our standards. But remember, it's nothing more than theater of the mindless. I'll never believe it, and neither should you.

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