Chefs that go crunch

Watching people cook provides its share of voyeuristic pleasures while also, in theory, offering bits of edification. It’s far easier to learn how to make a dish by watching somebody else make it than by tip-toeing your way through a recipe’s thicket of words, and this is true whether you’re watching in person or via television. In the 1980s I was a faithful viewer of Jacques Pépin’s cooking shows on public TV, and I still use several recipes he demonstrated offhandedly.

But those were the old days, when the point of putting chefs on the tube was to transmit knowledge, skills, and confidence to the viewing public. Today’s chef shows are quite different. Recently I spent a long, not-quite-voluntary interval watching several episodes of Bravo’s "Top Chef," and was reminded not so much — or really, not at all — of Jacques Pépin but of "The Real World" and "Survivor." The themes are pressure, ruthlessness, panic, and triumph, leavened with desire. Ancient Rome had its gladiators, and we have this. And is this, I wondered, any way to treat food and the people who make it? You scorch your broccolini and are voted off the island by a celebrity tribunal to the strains of Wagnerian doom music? And what about your crush on one of the judges, not to mention some of the other tasty chefs? Emotional confusion and torment must make for high ratings, if "Top Chef" is any indication. Still, I’m not sure they conduce to a better world, or even a better-fed world.

It isn’t surprising that cooking has become an occasion for competition in America. We turn all subjects, no matter how inappropriate — even poetry! — into competition. We hallow competition and competitive people, particularly when televised, and don’t seem to recognize that civilization is, at its core, a cooperative venture. Competition is no better than a necessary, well-regulated evil in a civilized regime, and the unthinking American exaltation of it is, possibly, part of the reason we are a warrior society rather than a civilized one.

What happens to the dismissed? I wondered. Do they fall on their knives, one by one, alone and unmourned, off camera? Or do the survivors conspire to cook the lost a send-off meal, in which food is a gesture of love rather than a commodity?

Paul Reidinger