Cooking Competitions to Watch While Pondering How to Chef It Up

Fall is approaching so that means we’re rounding out the end of cookout season. This is the time media tends to haul out the rest of their material surrounding grilling and barbecue. Netflix just dropped Chef’s Table BBQ, documentaries surrounding grill masters and how they approach their craft. Netflix will also be dropping the American Barbecue Showdown later this month. The focus on cuisines and what each season represents when it comes to harvests and traditions comes together in the later months of the year. When we think about cooking competitions, we often wish we could just put our hands through the television to taste what the judges are having. Some of us are inspired to make it ourselves, head to the kitchen to gather our ingredients, and begin to research to the ends of the earth to make our own inspired dishes.

Love Gathered Around the Table: The Big Family Cooking Showdown

The Big Family Cooking Showdown is probably one of the most chill cooking competitions I have ever seen. Compared to most cooking competitions this would be considered the most “rustic” as the focus is bringing teamwork and flavors to the judges. This show highlights families from various cultures and tests their dynamics against other families, challenging them to bring innovative dishes to the table. If you’re looking for a relaxing show that reflects on the ideology of “togetherness” than this is the cooking show for you.

For a cooking competition with home cooks they dive a bit deeper into the cultivation of dishes a bit more than usual, which can be a great thing. Often times people like to ignore the normal hardships that happen in the kitchen. Mostly about situations that you can’t control but can only make adjustments to. Example, summer heat can often change the temperature in the kitchen, which can in turn make dough stickier and for some dishes it may shorten cooking times or possibly make them longer. Much like family dynamics, the kitchen changes its form and requires you to be resourceful. The family can either be a helping guide, or be a hindrance and that is what makes this experience so interesting. The Big Family Cooking Showdown teaches a lot about multitasking, resourcefulness, and putting together a menu experience for friends and family. If you’re looking for inspiration for holiday dinners or gatherings, using this show as an inspiration would be a great building block.

I’m Here for The Story (…And Occasional Yelling): Master Chef

Master Chef as a whole is stressful, exciting, and at times corny. Gordon Ramsay, host of a series of other cooking/restaurant shows brings home cooks to California for their chance establish themselves as future culinary leaders. People from all walks of life approache the stage as amateurs with the goal of being transformed by three mentors, Gordon Ramsay and interchangeable colleagues of his. Reoccurring judges Joe Bastianich, Christina Tosi, and Aarón Sánchez join the board to determine who is worthy of this mantle.

Master Chef’s main focus is pushing amateur chefs to be a well-rounded chefs; prepared for the restaurant world by placing them in various challenges that push their limits. With Mystery Box challenges, team battles, and intricate elimination challenges the format of this series feels a lot like a skills test to prove “chops” rather than focusing on the craft in of itself. After observing their patterns and the patterns of seeing who “wins,” anything that seems “rustic” is made to seem as if it is not built up enough for the dining world (except in the case of Chef Dorian, Season 10 Winner). Master Chef focuses so much on appealing to this view of perfection it often diverges away from the learning process. Granted they have mini “workshop” episodes where they allow the main judges or guest judges to present a demonstration of something they want the chefs to replicate, but the focus seems less on what produces the most flavor. It is instead focused on the artistic style of food.

Though that is a valid form of cuisine and can be very important to those willing to learn about plating and process, the show is more about the storyline of seeing people grow with their craft. In most cases, the most innovative doesn’t win, rather the one who brings what they know the best. Master Chef is the show you watch for the inspiration to get to the kitchen, but it isn’t necessarily the inspiration to get you to try something brand new.

Settle Beef at The Kitchen Stadium: Iron Chef America

Probably my favorite of the bunch, the kitchen stadium has brought joy, screams, and innovative recipes I never heard of. They move in between national cuisines, holidays and everything in-between. What makes Iron Chef special is that it focuses on a select group of chefs that reoccur throughout the season in different capacities. Whether they are going against each other one on one, on teams, or even against chefs outside of the “Iron Chef” mantle, the competition introduces a main focus and pushes these professionals to develop a quick menu while throwing “culinary curve-balls.” I believe that anyone that’s trying to get into cooking would enjoy watching this because it teaches resourcefulness and how to use it for your advantage.

One of my favorite episodes was “Battle Pretzels” where the chefs had to utilize pretzels as a main ingredient across each item on their menu. Chef Jose Garces and Chef Michael Symon both created pretzel dumplings in their own way. I never heard of pretzel dumplings before this, but because I saw some of their process, it inspired me to research and create my own from scratch. Even when it comes to judging, their judges describe each layer of flavor and gives impressive critiques that could give viewers ideas on what to look for in their own food. From pairings to presentation, Iron Chef gave a “live sports” feel to the kitchen all while being cognizant of the viewer’s learning process.

The Honorable Community: Top Chef

Top Chef recently became one of my favorites, if not my favorite reality cooking show. It gives the true balance between understanding the backgrounds of the chefs and seeing how their knowledge inspires how they approach different cuisines. Gathering professional chefs from all over the country to present their dishes in quick challenges, present for large events, and building mini restaurants based around their visions the attention is focused on how the chef’s present their best selves. Top Chef wants you to show who you are above everything else while also challenging you to think outside of the box. The competition feels more communal than visceral, which is a different feel than the other shows listed. Of course, you know you want to destroy your competition, but these people are also your colleagues and are here for your growth just as much as they are here for glory.

The judging itself is also a different feel. Of course, these people are professionals and will approach food differently than a home cook/amateur because they already have a series of experiences that home cooks wouldn’t normally have. But even then, just seeing the chefs go out to the grocery store and being able to join them on the process of budgeting and planning their menus brings you into the realism that often feels separate from normal competitions. Often times, we see professional chefs as people who put together these magnificent dishes from scratch but don’t recognize them as people who go to the same supermarkets we go to. It humanizes the chef when we see them surfing through the aisles like us asking the same damn questions: “Where the hell they put those brioche buns?”

I believe that cooking shows can be a wonderful learning process when one is trying to learn how to cook. I became inspired to cook more often by looking at cooking competitions, because it exposed me to food I never knew about. Sometimes we can get stuck in what we are used to and revisit the same cuisines, because we don’t know where to look and what is actually out there. Cooking competitions can be used as valuable learning materials if you want something to ignite you, and it can also serve as a form of critique if you’re looking for different ways to approach what you already know. I usually recommend folks go beyond just the 30-minute meals watch on the Food Network and delve into documentaries, books and craft talks, but cooking shows such as these are the perfect places to start.

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  • Khadjiah Johnson is a Caribbean-American writer and humor advocate who uses poetry and comedy as a leverage to empathize and uplift. Her work has taken her to Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, Apollo Theater, BET, Off-Broadway and many more! She hopes to use her talents to sway her way into the writers room for a Late Night Comedy Show.

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