Is the bespectacled, thinning-haired guy hosting Cutthroat Kitchen really Alton Brown, or does Alton have a twin brother who’s down on his luck and unburdened by any sense of shame? The show itself is the Food Network’s latest attempt to ratchet up the cheap gimmickry that’s become endemic in cooking-competition shows until it finally crowds out any possibility of a demonstration of technique or skill or even basic competence. Instead of the chance to see professional chefs competing for bragging rights over who brought the most honor to their profession by doing the best, most imaginative job with the same limited set of ingredients, this show is all about what the network calls “deliciously challenging mind games,” with the usually solid Alton Brown cast in the role of “devilish provocateur.” Playing the satanic emcee is not something he was cut out for, and the figure he cuts here isn’t going to threaten anyone’s memories of Joel Grey in Cabaret. Springing ridiculous challenges on the competitors and then throwing even more ridiculous monkey wrenches into them, Brown does his best to preen and leer and chuckle sadistically; he does everything but turn off the lights and stick a flashlight in his mouth. About the only evidence he really is Alton Brown is that he looks a little embarrassed, which is how most decent people will look while watching him.
Here’s the setup: Each week, four chefs are given $25,000 apiece and proceed to compete in a series of cooking challenges, with one chef being eliminated after each round. Periodically, Brown announces he’s holding an “auction” to raffle off some advantage in the competition, or rather a disadvantage that the top bidder can then inflict on the rival of his or her choice. In the first round, the chefs are given 30 minutes to cook a turkey dinner. But after they’ve all raided the pantry and gathered their ingredients, Brown auctions off the right to swipe one ingredient each from the other chefs’ baskets. He later auctions off a chance to decide which of the chefs will have to swap the fresh turkey from the pantry for a “meat bomb,” i.e., a processed, pre-cooked, deli turkey breast. One contestant, Chef Ulka, pays $6,400 for the privilege of unloading this horror on Chef Frankie, who gets to retaliate by shelling out $2,400 to force her to cook, or rather, not cook, with a butane burner.
The only thing about these challenges that’s fun and interesting are the fleeting glimpses of improvisational thinking, such as when Chef Frankie explains to the camera that, although he hadn’t been thinking about Asian fusion for his turkey dish, he is now, since somebody stole his butter and he’s been forced to rethink his options and try to find a way to actually de-emphasize the turkey. (Meanwhile, Chef Lori, the butter thief, is having trouble breaking her turkey into cutlets since Chef Ulka paid to have all her utensils replaced with a penknife.) It would be easier to sympathize with the chefs if it weren’t for their own spirited attempts to get into the spirit of the show. Whether they’re talking smack to each other or giving the isolated, straight-to-the-camera interviews that are sprinkled throughout the show, they all try to turn themselves into ready-for-TV self-caricatures rather than people, with a special emphasis on how much they enjoy playing at being Bond villains. But to hear Chef Stark—a youngish fellow with a two-tone Mohawk and an unfortunate habit of striking wide-eyed, open-mouthed expressions to show he’s never seen such anarchy in the kitchen before—say, “I still got a leg up on those other turkeys, no pun intended,” is to be reminded that the actors who play Bond villains in movies don’t have to make up their own dialogue.
At the end of each round, Antonia Lafosa is brought out to taste the dishes and decide who’s going home. To make sure her judgment isn’t influenced by sympathy for what they’ve had to deal with, she isn’t informed about any of the auctions or their outcomes, and in fact, it’s not clear that the trials the chefs have been through really have that much bearing on the outcomes. For instance, Chef Ulka is exiled after the turkey challenge, not because she’s had to struggle with the butane burner, but because of her incompetence at deboning the meat. (As Lafosa says in handing Ulka her walking papers, “There never should have been cartilage that I had to pull out of my mouth.”)
Still, Lafosa knows she’s on a weird show, and that might account for some peculiarities in her judging; for instance, the fact that, in the second challenge, which is to prepare French toast, she forgives both Frankie and Lori for not quite making French toast. Instead, she bounces a confused Chef Stark, who has declared that “My two passions are my Mohawk and French toast!” It probably doesn’t help that he’s come out on the losing end of the auction to decide which chef will have to make French toast using burnt bread. Not that I was unhappy to see him go, after the cutaway clip of him throwing back his head and laughing as if he were auditioning for the role of Ming the Merciless. As far as celebrations of the noble art of cooking go, there hasn’t been anything quite like this since the time Vincent Price poached a fish in a dishwasher on the Johnny Carson show. The difference, aside from the fact that Vincent Price had a flair for camp, is that he had something else to fall back on.