We've had iron chefs and naked chefs, top chefs and masterchefs, and now, in a frightening indication of just how fast the de-evolutionary process is accelerating, the Food Network gives us Extreme Chef, the series that might just do for the wave of cooking shows what a little free time and too solid a grasp of the basics of knot-tying did for David Carradine. The people behind another Food Network show, Extreme Cuisine, would probably like you to keep it in mind that Extreme Chef has no connection or resemblance to Extreme Cuisine, which is just another show where a guy travels the globe looking for weird shit to eat. Extreme Chef is a cooking competition show. Our host, Marsh Mokhtari, who depending on how you look at it is either amazingly boring for someone so cheesy or amazingly cheesy for someone so boring, introduces us to three up-and-coming chefs and assigns them weird shit to do, all the while trying to elevate the entertainment value of their labors while doing weird shit to them.
The results are not pretty. I don't want to come across here as some kind of reality TV scold. I like a good circus with my bread as much as any lost soul. I've spent more time than I care to think about watching strangers eat live scorpions and drink telemarketer mucus. But let's keep our categories straight, okay? The fun of shows like Top Chef, like the fun of shows like Project Runway and Work of Art and even America's Next Top Model before Tyra went totally nuts and renounced her membership in the human race as too stifling, does have a lot to do with the clash of personalities involved. But at their core, these shows are about process. It's just interesting to see people who are gifted and sane in varying degrees working to express themselves in a field to which they're devoted.
Extreme Chef is queasy-making and migraine-inducing because of the way it gets the balance wrong. If the first episode is any indication, and if a lifetime spent watching too much TV has taught me anything then it damn well ought to be, then the "challenges" thrown at the chefs are designed to be so freakish and limiting that the contestants have no real chance of doing a really good job. The only suspense is in waiting to see if someone will break his neck while trying to grind out a BLT, which he hopes. in the words of one contestant in the premiere, will at least be "edible, if not very palatable." It turns out that this isn't as gripping when it's stripped of any suspense over whether someone will produce something amazing, or at least worth producing.
The luckless guinea pigs thrown into the grinder for the premiere are Leather Storrs, of Portland; Kristi Ritchey, executive chef at "a trendy health food restaurant" in Beverly Hills; and Sydney Hunter, a "culinary protege" and executive chef at "one of L.A.'s finest French restaurants." With his lank hair and curly mustache, Hunter looks like the nerdy little brother of the hero of V for Vendetta, and "is here to prove that he can cook outside of his four-star kitchen." Chef Richey, who recently lost 110 pounds, is here because the show "represents the start of her new life." As for Chef Leather, he's "here to make a better life for his family," who from the sound of it may be living in a car parked somewhere just off camera range. If this guy didn't have a hammerlock on the audience's sympathy as soon as the introductions were made, he definitely sews it up once everyone starts cooking and he begins to sweat. Either his body had been storing perspiration up for ages just waiting to release it in a climate warmer than Portland, or else Storrs can pour sweat on cue, the way Napoleon was said to be able to instantly will himself to sleep. Your sympathy for him may be dented only if you let your mind wander and imagine what it would be like to eat whatever it is that he's dripping all over.
The setting for the first extreme episode is suburbia, which we all know from watching David Lynch and John Waters movies, is the most extreme place there is. The first challenge involved assembling a dish from the contents of whatever ingredients the chefs manage to compile from a pile of unlabeled tin cans. Chef Sydney immediately established himself as the weak edge of the triangle by presenting a sardine cassoulet that moved the judge, food writer Simon Majumdar, to describe it as "something we should put to one side and never think about again," which is probably what Simon plans to do with this show once the check has cleared. Chef Leather's southwestern chipotle ham met with better favor with Simon, but he gave first prize to Chef Kristi's "spicy hominy stew" because, he explained a bit sheepishly, he could not in good conscience overlook the fact that Leather, as he freely admitted, had no idea what one of the ingredients in his dish might have been. Never a man to be stingy with the secrets of his trade, Simon gave him a useful tip to use in the future: "Critics rarely like to hear the words, 'mystery ingredient.'"
With the pecking order established, the chefs were unleashed to run into the houses behind them and scavenge more ingredients from the suburbanites' refrigerators, which someone had thoughtfully equipped with cameras, so we could enjoy those gritty, exciting reaching-in-here-rooting-around-for-the-mayonnaise shots. Once the chefs had been set up at three separate grills—propane, charcoal, and Hibachi—to prepare their main courses, three cars rolled up and Mohktari informed that they'd also be required to cook appetizers under their hoods, using the engine blocks for heat. Chef Sydney, grumbling that he'd never cooked with an engine block before ("I think it's disgusting!"), managed to sound as if he thought that regular mortals who don't have four-star kitchens must do it every day and twice on Sundays. Chef Kristi felt the need to announce that she too had "never cooked this way before. I didn't know you could." The final results seemed to confirm that, as a matter of fact, you really can't. Before that, though, Mohktari had taken things up an extra notch by switching on a mechanical rainmaker and deluging the contestants, and their cooking stations with water. "This is what Extreme Chef is all about!" hooted Mohktari, which was as pathetic an admission as we're ever likely to see on TV now that Oprah decided that life is too short to hold a grudge against James Frey. While his rivals fled to the garage to fetch umbrellas, Chef Leather stood firm and kept working. "This was gonna be a warm salad," he muttered, "but now it's gonna be a wet one." No one had the heart to point out that, the way he sweats, it was always going to be both.
After Chef Sydney was ordered to crawl back to his fancy-shmancy French restaurant in L.A. and pull his rock back over him, the remaining chefs were handed a final challenge, to make a single delicious bite of food out of the contents of a typical fourth-grader's sack lunch—ham sandwich, beef jerky, raisins, string cheese, etc.—using a manicure set for implements. Chef Leather's sweet 'n' sour chutney triumphed over Chef Kristi's grilled ham and cheese sandwich—a good call, considering that she'd basically performed the alchemical feat of making a ham sandwich out of a ham sandwich. Chef Leather walked away with bragging rights and a prize of $10,000 to put towards his goal of making a better life for him and his family, while Chef Kristi looked as if she had more than half a mind to stab him and the judges to death with the cuticle scissors, take the ten grand, and spend it all on donuts. Extreme Chef probably isn't a sign of the coming of the end of days or anything, but I am a little surprised that it's the Food Network, and not some tagalong channel that doesn't have its whole identity invested in the future of the foodie TV genre, that's brought us to this pass. Do they really just sit in their offices over there and worry that Spike TV is breathing down their necks? Seriously, guys, think about when the end of days does come, and you have to stand in judgment before the panel that will judge the worth of what you did in this life. Julia Child might be on that panel.