Why do we love watching chefs get eliminated?
Fox is advertising ‘Next Level Chef’ as the “#1 New Show on Network Television.” I’m not sure what index actually indicates that these days. But all I know is that, once again, I’m watching chefs get eliminated.
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I will watch anything as long as judges are tasting dishes and eliminating chefs. Usually, I’ll watch them while I’m eating. And I don’t care if the chefs are professional, semi-professional, amateur, or children. The only line I’ll draw is at holiday-themed baking championships. There are only so many meals in the week.
At this point, I think I’ve spent 72 percent of my adult life watching chefs get eliminated. We have Top Chef at the top of the ladder, of course. But also The Great British Baking Show, Chopped, Master Chef, Master Chef Junior, and so many more. I even watch the hideous Food Network show ‘Supermarket Stakeout,’ where FN chief sellout Alex Guranaschelli has low-end restaurant cooks offer money to grocery shoppers in parking lots in suburban Phoenix or Los Angeles.
At the moment, in addition to ‘Next Level Chef,’ I’m also watching an old season of Master Chef that popped up on Hulu recently. Because my wife can’t always watch TV with me, I have wait until she’s available for Next Level Chef or Master Chef. In the chef-elimination watching hierarchy, those are premium offerings.
So instead I’ve pivoted to a Canadian show called ‘Wall of Chefs’ on Hulu. In this one, amateur Canadian cooks compete for the favor of a dozen people in chefs coats, and a prize of $10,000. There’s also an old Anne Burrell joint called ‘Vegas Chef Prizefight,’ where a bunch of professional cooks are gunning for a head-chef job at a new restaurant at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Inject the formula into my veins. Chopped just finished up another one of its endless tournaments. They called this one ‘Casino Royale,’ in which contestants rolled dice to swap out various mystery-box ingredients.
All these shows have one thing in common: chef elimination. At this point, it’s become almost a pathology for me. I’m trying to understand why.
Next Level Chef takes chef elimination to a freshly absurd height, or low. Gordon Ramsay, who lives in my TV like Max Headroom in a chef’s coat, has gathered 15 “chefs,” many of whom appear to be TikTok influencers, in a TV studio. That studio features a three-level kitchen that an elevator connects. One level is a high-end kitchen featuring state-of-the-art equipment and blond wood. The middle level is a standard industrial restaurant kitchen. The show has designed the bottom level to look like something nearly post-apocalyptic, with crummy equipment, subpar ovens, and distressed paint to make it look dirty. But the cooking process is basically the same on all three levels, so the gimmick comes off as nearly meaningless, and it’s never funny, which it should be.
The show divides the contestant into three “teams,” one of them led by Gordon Ramsay, the second by annoying TV chef Richard Blais, and the third by Nyesha Arrington, who was on Top Chef and clearly has good agents. The teams randomly end up on some level. And then the platform descends, containing ingredients. Chefs have 30 seconds to ravage the platform like wolves so they can use the ingredients to “prepare their dishes.” It’s a game show, and it’s dumb. And in the end, someone is eliminated.
When you watch old chef-elimination shows, it’s kind of charming. But anything shot during the COVID era feels kind of noblesse oblige, given the ramped-up level of food insecurity in the world. It’s hard to watch an Instagram influencer lunge for sweetbreads to “cook a dish” that will get them “one step closer” to their dream when we live in a desperate world that has forced thousands of restaurants to close for often political reasons. In some ways, the mad scrounge, and the pretense that the chefs of the “bottom level” somehow have it rough, makes Next Level Chef the most offensive cooking show on TV since The Final Table, a ludicrous celebration of excess that aired on Netflix, and that the world then mercifully forgot.
Next Level Chef is way more regular-guy than that show was. The key to the Gordon Ramsay chef-elimination empire is very simple. They feature a likable, diverse, attractive cast, some of whom are true underdogs, and some of whom are quite talented. But for all its gimmicks, Next Level Chef is pretty much the same show as every other show. It has its own rules and obstacles. At the end of the day, it eliminates the chef who makes the worst dish, and another reality-show chef character goes down the memory tubes.
Most people who watch this show never get to dine at a top-level restaurant or eat these top-level ingredients. Even for those of us who do, or have had some privileged food experiences in our lives, it’s rare. And it’s rarely satisfying. Next Level Chef is helping some random person achieve their dreams. But for most of us in 2022, the dream is to eat something remotely resembling what they cook on the show. For others, it’s to cook something decent. And for lots of people, it’s to eat anything at all. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world right now, a chef is being eliminated.
Chef elimination shows are, above all else, food fantasies. They’re Wagyu steak tartare in a table-scrap world. Why do we like watching chefs get eliminated? Maybe because we know that we’re next. And now, for me, it’s time for an ordinary lunch. And time to watch another chef elimination.