An Idea for Bourdain’s Ultimate Cooking Competition

By Karen

I caught Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen one night on Fox while waiting to suffer through another episode of Anthony Bourdain’s recently-wrapped flop, The Taste, on ABC, and I got hooked. That jerk Ramsay’s strangely addictive, and he gave me a flash of inspiration on how Tony could meld formats into a cooking competition I’d watch.

First, limit the herd to 12 cooks so we can actually relate to them and pick a favorite.

Don’t mix home cooks with pros. It’s unfair. Period.

A season’s cast would either be all line cooks who aspire to chefdom, or home cooks, with challenges devised accordingly. Restaurant seasons could feature production cooking with the truffles and pea purées, but home-cooking seasons would be geared to potlucks, family BBQs, school lunches, holiday feasts — stuff “normal” people prepare.

Like Ramsay, Bourdain is head chef and sole judge. He devises each week’s menu to challenge the cooks and, hopefully, delight the diners. The food could be exotic, if he dares.

But instead of managing by berating and screaming obscenities, Bourdain mentors and teaches while trying to whip his crew into a crack team. Their failures are his failures. No lip service to how much judges “suffer.” He’d have skin in the game.

Tony in the kitchen, managing, would have plenty of ops for mayhem, with one-liners and bleeps —delivered with his customary snark or charm, not Ramsayish apoplexy.

Each night’s challenge is to impress a dining room full of chefs, food bloggers, foodie snobs, rubes, kids, some ilk-of-the-week. We’d watch them kvetch, retch, or praise, but their opinions would not determine anybody’s fate.

Instead, they give Tony and his crew feedback to soak in, with all equally accepting the glory, embarrassment, or blame.

Like Ramsay, Tony asks the cooks to pick someone to be eliminated, but he makes the ultimate decision. He might choose the one who’s 1) hopelessly inept, 2) incapable of teamwork,  3) lacking finesse in sabotage (serving justice by kicking out the culinary Omorosas), or for whatever reasons he thinks are important.

The winner is the one Tony would ultimately want in his own kitchen and can recommend “with no reservations” for a restaurant job with one of his chef pals.

Tony’s BFF’s might be invited guests to help him rally the troops in the kitchen, so we could see the likes of Ripert and Andres at work. And they would risk sharing the blame for meals gone wrong.

America could see how these guys earned the celebrity chef laurels they’re now resting on. The tone would be upbeat and instructive. When someone fails, it’s not because they’re being deliberately screwed and humiliated by pros hoping to boost ratings.

Bourdain believes cooking is a mentoring profession, as he says at around minute 15 of this interview at Serious Eats, so this cruelty-free format is a natural fit for him.

We’d be spared dead-weight judges like Brian Malarkey and Padma Lakshmi. Cooks would be assessed on whole meals, not one ridiculous bite. AND Bourdain could renew his “celebrity chef” cred, possibly ushering in the next generation of great chefs — all without slaving over a hot stove himself.

What do you think? (Discuss among yourselves; I bet you can improve on this even more. I’ll be back April 8.)

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25 Responses to An Idea for Bourdain’s Ultimate Cooking Competition

  1. imabear says:

    I LOVE it! The “with no reservations” part is pure brilliance on your part.

  2. catsworking says:

    imabear, thank you. I really think a cooking competition that isn’t a pure circus of cruelty is long overdue, and Bourdain just the man to pull it off. He’s wily, witty, and inspires loyalty. I can totally see him doing this.

  3. Zappa's Mom says:

    I love it,too! People who work in restaurants being judged by people who actually work in restaurants themselves!

  4. Kim says:

    Brilliant! Do it! I loathe all the histrionics of Hell’s Kitchen and agree with you 100% on Padma Lakshmi. Get the networks in a bidding war for your idea!

  5. catsworking says:

    Welcome, Kim! I hope Tony’s wife is still reading Cats Working and passes my idea on to him. I’d let him have it free if he’d do a cooking show that doesn’t make your eyes bleed.

  6. adele says:

    How was cruising? I love your idea as well, and most of Tony’s chef buddies are probably very good mentors. Not only would it be nice to see a cruelty free show, it would be nice to actually learn something from some of the great chefs. I don’t recall learning one bit of cooking technique from any of the competitions — maybe that’s not their purpose, but if Top Chef or The Taste is in a time capsule somewhere, future generations will be baffled that preparing nutrition had become a blood sport.

    There’s a restaurant in Chicago, called Next, where every three months or so the chef, Grant Achatz (one of Chicago’s claims to culinary fame), changes the theme of the menu, running the gamut from children’s lunch boxes to Escoffier 1906. Having a theme for each week could be fun and would get in some diverse diners.

  7. chinagirl says:

    All looks good on paper, but AB showed he is not a metor on The Taste didn’t he??? He is good at drinking!!!! Plus he would need more camera time than the contestants!!!

  8. catsworking says:

    Hi, Adele. The cruise was good, but I’m buried in work after being gone. And this week, ALL the cats have a birthday, so it’s Party Central around here. 😉

    chinagirl, good points about The Taste, but he was only working within the format, and the editing was so badly done, nobody came off looking particularly good (except maybe Nigella). I think each hour should be devoted to ONE competition (screw that immunity gimmick, where it’s too often the least-deserving cook who gets a pass for the week while someone who deserves another chance goes home), and without all the faux-stress of unrealistic deadlines. Show Bourdain actually teaching his team how a meal is done from beginning to end. I wouldn’t have a problem with the pros getting more time than the contestants because, that way, everybody benefits.

    These shows are really all about the judges anyway, or Colicchio would have dumped Padma after the first season. What kitchen NEEDS a worthless sexpot?

    A show whose outcome rests on tasting one bite of food that so-called “culinary experts” can’t even identify half the time is just bullshit. Instead of rushing everything else to waste half the airtime on the judging, focus more on the process itself and really show what the cooks can do.

  9. chinagirl says:

    OK. How about AB doing a cooking show on his own??? Would he have the skills to pull that of??

  10. catsworking says:

    chinagirl, I think he calls those “stand and stir” shows, and I’m sure he’d go on Dancing with the Stars before he’d do one. He probably has the technical skills, but he doesn’t have the temperament for such a repetitive format, nor would he be happy with endlessly devising menus or, even worse, cooking stuff some production lackeys dreamed up for him. Really, he’s so far removed from the realm of cooking now, the only way he ever pulls off the association is through others. Think about it.

    As long as he’s been on TV, his raison d’etre has been travel and eating, not cooking.

  11. adele says:

    Alice and Dorothy send birthday greetings to all the cats at Cats Working and wish them many more happy and peaceful and “accident” free birthdays. Alice says she thinks Adele’s birthday is April 9 — is that right?

  12. catsworking says:

    Adele, Max turns 2 today, Adele turns 13 on the 11th, and Cole turns 7 on the 15th. It’s a big month for cat birthdays around here. They all say “Thank You” to Dorothy and Alice for the greetings. It’s amazing that you remembered!

  13. trisha says:

    Am I evil because I don’t celebrate my cat’s birthdays, with the rationale that he has no concept of time or birthdays? lol I don’t even know the day, just the month.

    But I digress – interesting looong interview of AB by Zimmern, in which among other things, AB confirms he got published with his first submission to the new yorker, then got a book deal literally the day after the piece came out. Who wins the lottery like this?! And twice, no less? He goes on to mention how he says no to tons of stuff he’s asked to do, and started sobbing when reading Winnie the Pooh to his daughter. Enjoy.

    http://deltaskymag.delta.com/Sky-Extras/Favorites/Guts–Glory—Growing-Up.aspx

  14. catsworking says:

    trisha, the shelter gave me birth certificates (sort of) on all the cats, so that’s how I know. But, except maybe in Adele’s case (I don’t know her whole backstory), the shelter made the dates up because they didn’t have Max and Cole from birth.

    Thanks for the link. I read the interview yesterday, and got the impression that Zimmern stays up nights trying to think of things he has in common with Bourdain. Talk about a mini-Me.

    Tony’s story about the overnight book deal would have been touching and remarkable if the copyright on his novel, Bone in the Throat, wasn’t 1995, and his second novel, Gone Bamboo, wasn’t 1997. KC was actually his THIRD book, and was published in 2000.

    His first publisher was Villard, a division of Random House. So it wasn’t like, with the KC stuff, he was asking anybody to take a gamble on an unpublished/unknown quantity. He had the great fortune to place his first 2 books with a huge house, and that gave him a ton of instant cred.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s no WAY he neglected to tell the New Yorker, even in a drunken stupor, that he was a twice-published author with Random House.

    On the other hand, he had the writing talent to earn every success he’s had with it. He paid his dues, and the third time was the charm. We should all be so lucky — or named Marilyn Hagerty.

  15. trishia says:

    Ha! Too funny re: mini me, and I love what you said about Padma earlier – sex pot waste of space lol.

    Yea I knew about the first 2 novels but they didnt sell. I figured they played into it but still, that brings us back to how he got the first novel published and if THAT story is true, it’s truly lotto territory – a friend offered him a chance to go to Mexico or some such locale and finish his novel with the promise it would be considered by a publisher; not clear what relationship the friend had to the publisher or if he worked there, but obviously had some pull or connections.

    And even so, going from failed novelist to a nonfiction book deal based on one short article, even if it is the New Yorker, is a giant leap and seems pretty rare. A friend pointed out the other day that AB was lucky in the sense that he broke before blogs and Twatter,etc. exploded. Back then you didn’t need 8 million followers before a publisher would even look at your stuff.

  16. catsworking says:

    trishia, don’t even get me started on Padma. I can’t take Colicchio seriously because of her.

    Your points about the pre-Internet publishing world are spot on. Bourdain lived in NYC, the seat of publishing before the Internet screwed it all up. The friend who encouraged his writing must have had connections. Even though the novels didn’t hit it big, he now had Random House on his resume, and that must have opened the next doors. And now one of those novels has been optioned for a movie. If that actually happens, he’ll be seeing some nice royalty checks again.

    McGraw-Hill wanted to publish my first book MANY years ago, but I balked at making some changes they wanted and ended up placing it with a fleabag outfit called Arco. BIG MISTAKE. My writing career would undoubtedly be in better shape if I’d had the name McGraw-Hill to drop when I was pursuing other book deals.

    But nonfiction book deals can come out of nowhere if the idea is novel enough. I got my publisher for How to Work Like a Cat with a one-page letter and a 750-word magazine column clip on the topic.

  17. trishia says:

    Can I ask how many publishers you contacted before McGraw bit? Or did you send to agents? My problem is sheer laziness and having great difficulty overcoming rejection. I sent a nonfiction proposal a couple years ago to 30 agents, they all said no (though some of the rejections were encouraging). So what did I do – I stopped. All that ‘quitters never win’ stuff is not yet enough motivation for me lol.

    I recently read Billy Bob Thornton’s book – great read, btw – and he talks about how it was 6 yrs of struggling in Hollywood before he got his first script made into a movie. It was 2 or 3 yrs before anyone even showed interest in buying one of his scripts. And I thought damn how do people keep going, especially when they’re struggling financially (BBob almost literally starved to death). He said he ‘didn’t know any better’ and just kept assuming ‘tomorrow is the day’ when something would break for him. I envy them.

    Then there are those like AB who claim their success is basely largely on not giving a f__. Envy them, too.

  18. Zappa's Mom says:

    Welcome back!! I hope you had a lovely time!
    About AB’s crappy show and my love of even crappier TV-the chick that won “The Taste” was on “Millionaire Matchmaker” She got hooked up with some chick primarily because she loved fried banana sandwiches…..yeah……I watch “Millionaire Matchmaker”

  19. adele says:

    ZM, I haven’t seen “Millionaire Matchmaker” yet this season, but I did see a promo while I was getting my scuz quota by watching the reunion of The Real Houswives of Beverly Hills. I thought I saw Khristianne in the promo, but then I thought, “What are the odds” Fried banana sandwiches, huh?

  20. catsworking says:

    trishia, my first book was a fluke, and it was a much more innocent time. I queried 11 publishers (no agents), and 7 wanted to see it. I picked 4, and it boiled down to 2 — Arco and McGraw-Hill. It was the first thing I’d ever had professionally published, but it was in a tiny niche and it only sold about 5,000 copies. On the other hand, it gave me the right to say I was a legitimately published author, and that has always gotten me at least a look.

    The editor at McGraw-Hill was a peach. He wrote me, “I know good writing when I see it, and this is good writing.” HOW COULD I HAVE NOT SUCCEEDED AFTER SUCH ENCOURAGEMENT?

    I’ve got at least 7 complete books, both fiction and nonfiction, in the closet because I’m like you. I sent queries out to publishers or agents, got some promising rejection notes, failed to read between the lines, and THEN DIDN’T FOLLOW UP. I still kick myself. But usually, so much time had passed, by the time I got the rejects, I’d look at the work and think, “I can do better than that,” and throw it in the closet and be working on something else.

    I once had an agent who shopped my satiric business book, Slither with the Snakes (a response to a bestseller called Swim with the Sharks) to exactly 6 publishers, who turned it down. So he gave up, saying, “People in business don’t like to laugh at themselves.” I never should have let that one die, although it’s hopelessly dated now because PCs weren’t on the landscape when I wrote it.

    Then Dave Barry had no problem getting Claw Your Way to the Top published. He declined to give me a blurb for How to Work Like a Cat because he said if he endorsed my book, he’d have to give one to everyone. Maybe he just hated my book and was trying to be kind, but it dovetailed his book perfectly and not getting that blurb was a real kick in the teeth.

    I haven’t tackled fiction for about 20 years because the last novel I wrote was my best effort, but a California agent had me gut it for length, and then declined to represent it.

    Right now I’m working on 2 nonfiction books about cruising that I hope to place somewhere. And I’ve got a book on business writing I’ve been tinkering with that I may self-publish.

  21. catsworking says:

    ZM and Adele, do you think reality TV has come full circle, and all the usual suspects are just rotating? Kate Gosselin keeps popping up. Lisa Vanderpump from RHOBH just got booted on Dancing with the Stars.

    I think I saw some woman named Kendra Wilkerson(?) for a minute on Splash and thought, “Wait a minute! Wasn’t she just on…?”

    Then there’s that Bethany Frankel from RHONY who’s had her own show and has been doing guest spots on sitcoms like she’s got some acting talent.

    They get on one show, and suddenly it’s a career. We how have this whole sub-layer of no-talent nobodies who dwell just beneath the actual TV stars, waiting in the wings to work cheaper on low-budget, unscripted crap that fills the holes in the TV wasteland.

    Here’s a riddle: When reality shows consist of nothing but “stars” from other reality shows, can they still be considered “reality?”

    PS: Anybody who eats bananas on bread needs their head examined.

  22. adele says:

    Elvis loved fried banana sandwiches (I think with bacon) and look at where it got him.

    Karen and ZM. It is amazing about the “stars” reality TV breeds. I remember when TLC really was the LEARNING channel. Here’s an idea; why don’t we pitch a show called Cat Ladies. If the most watched videos on the web are cat videos, surely there’s gold somewhere in them thar hills.

  23. catsworking says:

    Adele, I think a network that shows nothing but cat videos might have a niche today. Henri, Le Chat Noir, and Sockington from Twitter could be the first reality cat TV stars.

    Was it bacon or peanut butter with Elvis? I once tried a banana and peanut butter sandwich on toasted bread (thinking it was an Elvis thing, just out of curiosity) and it was nasty.

    Well, ladies, tonight is the big night. Tony’s debut on CNN. I’m giving up Nurse Jackie‘s season premiere AND Mad Men to watch him eat in Myanmar.

    Bourdain’s supposed to be in Boulder, CO, tonight with Ripert, doing their Good vs. Evil schtick.

  24. chinagirl says:

    Sorry don’t know where to post this. Have you seen the new CNN show Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown???

  25. catsworking says:

    Hi, chinagirl! Yes, I gave up Nurse Jackie to watch it, and I just did a post about it, so please come back and add your opinion. Sorry it took me so long to get to it. I’m still playing catch-up with work after my vacation.

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