Who’s Hungry for Cooking Shows?

March 6, 2022

Scott Conant, celebrity chef on Chopped (Photo courtesy of Scott Conant)

The competitive cooking shows we are familiar with today are all thanks to The Food Network. Created in 1993, the channel revolutionized cooking shows which launched it into fame, becoming the second fastest growing network by 1997 as per scripps.com. 

Now the 20th most watched channel, The Food Network hosts several famous shows, such as Chopped, Iron Chef and Beat Bobby Flay. Of course, we can’t forget about other cooking shows such as The Great British Baking Show, Masterchef and Nailed It, none of which have been poached by the network yet.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, cooking shows began as educational programs for housewives to learn basic recipes. Then, in the ‘60s, there was a shift toward more complicated recipes and engaging hosts, like The French Cook hosted by Julia Child, America’s OG foodie. As cooking shows progressed, they featured various famous chefs teaching their favorite dishes to the average American. 

When The Food Network — and its sister channel, The Cooking Channel — were created in the early ‘90s, it used famous chefs, like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Paula Deen, to reel in viewers. There was also a shift from teaching viewers how to cook to providing entertainment, culminating in the creation of Iron Chef in 1999 (yep, the first modern cooking show is a Gen-Zer). According to The Atlantic, by 2000, it was the most watched show on the channel with 372,000 viewers per episode. Shortly after, cooking-themed talk shows like Rachel Ray pulled in viewers by blending entertainment and cooking tips through exciting celebrity guest interviews and engaging cooking segments.

Soon, it became the standard to focus more on entertainment and competition than food. The modern competitive cooking show can be broken down into two main categories. The first type draws the audience in by focusing on the competition aspect, where new contestants are typically brought in for each episode; lovers of Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay will recognize this design.

The second type of cooking show focuses on the social aspect of competition, highlighting the relationships between contestants and allowing the viewer to get to know each contestant on a more personal level. This is done by establishing a set group of contestants for the entire season of the show and only eliminating one person each episode. A great example is The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), also known as The Great British Baking Show, where twelve bakers compete for the title of the Greatest British Baker. 

“My favorite thing [about GBBO] is that they make you love the contestants; they make you want to root for them. I continue watching because the contestants genuinely like each other. They root for each other and they help each other and they hang out outside of the show,” said WHS senior Bella Lagatta.

The relationships between contestants on GBBO have been easily built since the contestants live together for the duration of filming the season. 

“For the past two years during COVID-19, [the contestants] go to this beautiful hotel in England in the countryside and they live there for two months. So they’re all there together and there’s so much camaraderie. They are close friends and they hang out. They want each other to do well,” said WHS English teacher Rebecca McGrath. 

Jamie Foerst, a freshman at Newark Academy and
Westfield resident, contestant on Chopped Junior in 2019

GBBO is definitely a crowd favorite for its camaraderie among the contestants. According to Variety, that signature British politeness draws 6.9 million viewers to watch chefs battle for a plate (you’d think they’d at least keep to British tradition by winning a sword). 

Cooking shows like GBBO also use color psychology to draw people in. Touches of pastels such as teal, violet, green and yellow are incorporated in the set kitchen. Pastel colors evoke feelings of relaxation, which makes the viewer feel at ease and tells them that they can simply sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

According to Neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Herz, people with different personality types are typically drawn to different types of food shows. Someone who tends to be more competitive may prefer highly competitive shows like Top Chef more than someone who isn’t.

Baking shows are another form of reality TV, but instead of watching the mental health of celebrities crumble into rehab, we see a multi-tiered cake crumble to the floor. The viewers connect with the contestants and host as much as they do with the actual cooking. Everyone loves competition and everyone loves food — you may even be snacking as you read this.

WHS AP Psychology Teacher Robert Ebert said, “It’s something that reminds people of home, and the comfort of home and family. We just have this tremendous psychological association with eating and enjoying meals together.” 

According to cravedfw.com, a third of our brain is dedicated to vision, so when we see food on our TV, we can imagine what it tastes like. According to Ebert, vision and taste are closely connected, so we essentially taste the recipes vicariously through the screen. 

Most people who watch cooking shows have no real interest in learning to cook. Ebert said, “[Viewers] are living a minor fantasy of being able to do it, maybe experiencing ‘Oh, that’s what those people are doing in the kitchen.’” After all, someone seeking to learn how to bake a mouthwatering key lime pie probably wouldn’t flip to series 3, episode 5 of GBBO and watch the entire hour-long episode when they could find an easy recipe online. 

Then there are those who get to live out this dream. Jamie Foerst, a freshman at Newark Academy and a Westfield resident, was a contestant on Chopped Junior in 2019. Enjoying an episode of Chopped Junior is a totally different experience than being in the kitchen attempting to bring the audience’s wildest food fantasies to life. 

Surprisingly, for Foerst, the actual cooking itself wasn’t the most difficult part of competing on the show. “Coming up with ideas was difficult. Actually, cooking was easy after enough practice, but turning four random things you’ve never heard of into a cohesive dish was difficult,” said Foerst.

However, there is so much more than meets the eye when it comes to cooking shows. Most viewers do not realize how much work the production of a single episode of a cooking competition show requires. 

Foerst explained that over 9 hours of film is cut down to a mere 23 minute episode. “The interviews took forever and I repeated myself like 10 times. It was weird to have everything I did under the microscope,” said Foerst.

Cooking shows really aren’t about picking up tips and tricks in the kitchen (most people accept the fact that they will never possess the talent that the seasoned chefs they watch on TV have, no matter how many hours of Masterchef they binge). Instead, they allow people to connect to what they’re watching, whether it be to the camaraderie or competition. 

Even with the popularity of The Food Network today, cooking videos have recently gained popularity on other platforms, especially TikTok and YouTube. Many people find an element of relaxation in watching someone prepare a delicious meal, even if they have no intention of trying to replicate the recipes they see for themselves.

YouTube is also host to a lot of amateur chefs bringing their favorite recipes and kitchen hacks to thousands of viewers every week. Many of these YouTube creators have ridden their popular channels all the way to book deals and jobs as real chefs. Others take a more creative approach such as Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen, which combines comedy and baking. Other types of cooking shows on YouTube also try to build that connection between viewers and hosts, like Mukbang, South Korean food videos in which the host eats different types of food on camera while speaking to the viewer.

Cooking shows now focus on the contestants’ stories. On Chopped, participants have the opportunity to share their background and personal experiences that have influenced them as chefs as part of the introduction to each episode. However, despite how touching those interviews can be, it’s still about the quality and creativity of the food at the end of the day.

“We don’t take their stories into consideration, even though so many of the stories are heartbreaking,” said Scott Conant, celebrity chef on Chopped, in an exclusive interview with Optic. “We just focus on the quality of food that the chefs are cooking. We’re not stuck [on] paying attention to all the other stuff. You know, it’s just food and it makes it easier.”

Conant began his career working in a restaurant at 15-years-old. “Once I walked inside the kitchen for the first time at a commercial kitchen, I just absolutely fell in love with the camaraderie. You’re individually responsible for what you do. And also, you’re part of the team and that camaraderie really resonated with me.”

Originally agreeing to be a celebrity judge on Chopped to gain publicity for his restaurants, like Scarpetta in New York City, Conant has now judged on the show for the past 13 years. “The one thing I love about Chopped is that the producers don’t really get involved with who we’re going to chop like a lot of other cooking shows,” said Conant. 

Just as important as the relationships between contestants, is the chemistry amongst judges. Conant attests to the deep friendships between his fellow judges, pushing each other to grow as chefs. It’s a real testament to the producers of Chopped that the seemingly random selection of chefs have created a cohesive group that works well together. 

“We’re always pushing ourselves to be better than we were the day before, surrounding ourselves with better people, focused on the plate and in the cooking techniques. It’s a tremendous amount of learning experience that goes along with that,” said Conant.

Celebrity Chef Scott Conant working in the kitchen (Photo courtesy of Scott Conant)

Not only is Conant grateful for his own experiences on Chopped, but he aims to better the contestants cooking skills through his honest and constructive feedback on their dishes. “My intention is strictly to make people better at what they do by offering a little bit of guidance or maybe a little tip on how to see things a little bit differently. I think it’s important to be clear and concise about what works and what doesn’t work, and how they could have made it better,” said Conant.

Conant is able to deliver such high-level advice by using his extensive culinary knowledge as a professional chef to hone in on the nuances of each dish. “[I try] to be articulate about my thought process about what I’m eating and really be clear about those flavor profiles that are in front of us and the technique that’s necessary in order to develop those flavor profiles, as well as focus on the quality of the ingredients.”

Although Conant acknowledges that it is difficult to eliminate contestants because he understands how heartbreaking it can be, he never intends to hurt them and encourages every chef to remain determined and continue refining their skills in the kitchen. “I’m a big believer that if you have a talent, you have a responsibility for that talent and you have to pursue that,” said Conant.

Obviously, cooking shows aren’t just for those who love to cook, they’re about more than that. Competitive baking shows are not just about the mouth-watering dishes or the emotive judges that entertain us every week. Rather, it’s the connection that viewers make through the screen when they see those contestants live out their dreams that resonates. This relationship has pushed baking shows to the forefront of television in the past 20 years, and it’s clear they’re here to stay. 

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