Tonight, a man in a red beret will appear on television. He’ll stand and watch as men and women scramble through mud, grit their teeth through a tug of war, and wade cautiously through a murky lake. They’ll also be cooking. The man is Alton Brown, and this is Camp Cutthroat, a spinoff of the Food Network’s sabotage-happy cooking competition Cutthroat Kitchen. It’s the most recent in a long line of cooking show spinoffs and the logical evolution of a format trying to stay relevant by making cooking more extreme.
The overall format of the original Cutthroat Kitchen, which premiered in 2013, is standard for a cooking competition: three different dishes, three rounds of cooking, and one elimination after each round. At the start of each round, Brown holds an auction. The chefs are provided with $25,000 each to bid on items meant to make their competitors' lives more difficult. During one episode, a chef paid $4,400 to force a competitor to use blue cheese and red wine in his French toast. One chef paid $5,200 for the sole use of the kitchen knives; his competitors had to use scissors and a razor blade.
Camp Cutthroat will follow the same format, but instead of taking place in a shiny television studio kitchen, it will all take place in the wilderness.
Cooking shows haven’t always been like this. There can be comfort in a cooking competition. It’s usually only noticeable for a brief moment; sometime after the challenge has been dealt and before the timer slides down to zero. The room is mostly silent except for the sounds of cooking (and maybe some dramatic mood music). The rapid march of a knife through an onion, the first sizzle of a slice of prosciutto dropped into a skillet of simmering oil, or the clatter of a fry basket scraping against the sides of a grease vat. The chefs are in their most comfortable place, and all you have to do is watch. Watching cooking shows felt like some approximation of love while we ate Seamless orders delivered in plastic bags.
cooking shows felt like some approximation of love
This kind of digital tenderness felt like enough for a few years, but familiarity breeds contempt. And there may be no breed of television programming more in danger of falling victim to that than cooking competitions. In 2005, there were two cooking challenge shows on the Food Network. Last year, there were 16. We passed peak saturation years ago, and then we kept going: Top Chef, Iron Chef, MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, Food Network Challenge, Chopped. Then came the spinoff tournaments: Top Chef Masters, MasterChef Jr., Iron Chef: America, Chopped Champions, and Food Network Star. They all had a smart-mouthed host and featured chefs with fast hands and something to prove. Somehow, these shows were captivating enough to prevent viewers from stopping to ask the question "What’s so exciting about watching someone else cook food you can’t eat?" At first, we didn’t need to know what made it exciting; we just knew that it was. But nearly a decade into the conception of televised cooking competitions, audiences can’t be trusted to be captivated by comfort anymore. There’s nothing interesting anymore about watching someone make the perfect balsamic reduction, and the Cutthroat Kitchen series understands that. How do you revive a stale format without throwing away everything that made it good in the first place?
Cutthroat Kitchen has already funneled through six seasons, a celebrity sabotage tournament for charity, and one Halloween super-competition of Cutthroat veterans. Over the past two years, things have gotten progressively stranger. If cooking shows are an approximation of love, then Cutthroat Kitchen’s recent episodes have been like a couple trying to reignite that feeling of infatuation from the start of their relationship. A recent episode had Brown auctioning off five shot glasses containing different ingredients: one of hot sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, and garlic. The sabotaged chef had to take a shot of one of the sauces each time he wanted to taste his food. Another chef was forced to wear a scuba mask and prepare scallops with his head underwater. Brown announced these challenges with a menacing laugh. If anyone could make torturing people seem like charming affection, he could, but he always seemed slightly uncomfortable with the villain persona.
Since the beginning, Cutthroat Kitchen has been criticized for taking these gimmicks too far; that the show is less about the food and more about making people look silly. But that interpretation misunderstands challenge as distraction and mistakes simple dishes for amateur ones. The best challenges in the Cutthroat series aren’t about physical activity but culinary expertise, when the chefs are required to use strange and unappetizing ingredients in their dishes. In a first season episode, one chef is forced to make dessert macaroni and cheese, so he adds white chocolate to his cheese sauce. (He was eliminated, but his downfall was that he also put lobster in the dish.) In another episode, a chef is asked to make a turkey dinner without butter, so he decides to make an Asian fusion dish instead of something traditional. These innovations don’t always make for good food, but they make for good improvisation. And improv adds an element of the unexpected to one of the most predictable formats on television.
Reality TV has already tried to breathe new life into tired premises by making the boundaries as insane as possible, specifically, by throwing physical challenges into the mix. MTV’s Real World lifeline The Challenge asked Real World contestants to team up and compete in a series of bizarre battles. Bachelor Pad was a spinoff that similarly pitted former Bachelor contestants against each other to ridiculous effect. And that idea has never worked for cooking shows, until Cutthroat Kitchen made it work. But Camp Cutthroat may be the limit, and obstacle courses are never a good sign.
This never worked for reality TV
Early seasons in the Cutthroat universe mastered the delicate balancing act of comfort and strangeness, but with Camp Cutthroat, the series may have ditched that comfort entirely to make room for as much absurdity as possible. If cooking show competitions start to lean too far in one direction, they won’t be cooking shows anymore — they’ll just be boot camps with a food theme. And here’s something we often forget when we’re in love: novelty has an even shorter shelf life than comfort.
Camp Cutthroat premieres tonight at 9PM ET on Food Network.