Recipes for Disaster

MasterChef, The Next Food Network Star, and Rocco’s Dinner Party reviewed.

Rocco’s Dinner Party on Bravo

The publicity people at Fox, adepts at mailing out cheesy, clever, or otherwise notable promotional items, may have outdone themselves for aptness in announcing the new second season of MasterChef by sending an oven mitt that’s as black as malice and composed of space-age plastic. With its S&M-chic styling, the mitt looks like some kind of spanking glove, and there can be no doubt that more than a few of this nation’s TV reviewers are already using it as such, a masochistic streak being a prerequisite for the job. The mitt is most certainly in the style of the show it advertises, a competition where 100 amateur cooks venture to Los Angeles to be humiliated by Gordon Ramsay and two deputy abusers, Graham Elliott and Joe Bastianich.

On camera, Ramsay talks about his Michelin stars as if they were instead the kind that a ninja throws, and he cruelly exhorts the contestants to subscribe to his winner-take-all ethos. “Be the best or go home,” he sneers. “Nobody ever talks about the second-best dish they’ve ever tasted.” Not true. Watch: The second-best dish I ever tasted was the rabbit at Jean-Georges, which is almost as good as Mom’s apple pie.

Monday night’s season premiere introduced Jennifer—”a former beauty queen”—as the first victim. “Hopefully, they like spice ‘cause I’m spicy to begin with,” she said, laughing through her nose as she toasted spices for her curried coconut and lentil soup with spicy shrimp. Ramsay first asked her to explain what carrots were doing in the dish, then found her explanation lacking, then spat some curse that seemed all the more explicit for being so comprehensively bleeped and blurred. But Jennifer managed to win him over and earn a spot in the next round. Her secret? Groveling. When contestants’ fates hang in the balance here, they start whining and quite often get their way. Inasmuch as MasterChef offers a catalog of all the latest styles in prostration, beseechment, and miserable pleas, this is possibly the most dangerous show on television for a 2-year-old to watch.

MasterChef isn’t designed for 2-year-olds, of course, but for adult gluttons for punishment, a substantial subset of the audience for this summer’s food-centric reality shows. Earlier this spring, I found myself at a conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, seated on a panel titled “Who Is Food Television For?” Being that the answer “suckers” seemed perilously reductive, we proceeded to actually address the question. At Q-and-A time, one audience member voiced a common lament: TV has great potential as a tool to teach about cooking techniques and foreign cultures and yogurt cultures and everything else, and there are all these hours of it to fill, and why-oh-why must the Food Network and its ilk overserve the public with blatant idiocy? I humbly suggested that if you’re actually interested in food, then the television is not the correct household appliance for you.

Food television is for people who love to watch television, many of whom also happen to need to eat. Food television itself insists on this point in the form of The Next Food Network Star (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), now back for its seventh season. Here, actual Food Network stars—the workmanlike Bobby Flay and doll-like Giada De Laurentiis—administrate the crowning of the next Food Network footnote. The contestants are vying to win a show. “If you can’t cook, you can’t win,” someone says, which is a debatable point.

After all, it was only a small setback for Vic last Sunday night, when he presented a “country-fried lobster” with country gravy that did not have any lobster in it, the crustacean either having been misplaced or scuttled off to take a meeting with its agent about America’s Next Top Crustacean. But Vic’s tribal tattoos and personable-ish smile carried the day. By contrast, everyone agrees that Juba is a wizard at the stove, but his understanding of media is demonstrably lacking; his idea of a good concept for a show is “Simple Complex.”

Other notable Star wannabes include Penny. “I know how to market myself,” Penny says, using code for sexing it up. It’s quite normal for TV to peddle flesh most crudely, but rarely is it done so clumsily as in the hands of Penny—hands that have a disturbing way of fondling a passionfruit during a promo-taping challenge. Penny wants to host a show called Stilettos in the Kitchen. I think that there’s a relatively small number of people, even among foot fetishists, who do not find the concept of stilettos in the kitchen to be anti-erotic, though I do suppose they could prove useful for tenderizing beef.

Of course, half the point of becoming a celebrity chef—as opposed to a person merely celebrated for cooking good food—is that you get to hang out with other celebrities, thus achieving the richest gratification known to humankind. Such is the tacit premise of Rocco’s Dinner Party (Bravo, debuts June 15 at 11 p.m. ET), hosted by Rocco DiSpirito. Once the wunderkind of the restaurant Union Pacific, later the preening jackass of The Restaurant (NBC), DiSpirito is so far evolved as a celebrity chef that he no longer even needs to cook.

Rocco’s Dinner Party is a catering competition where, each week, contestants serve meals to the host’s fabulous friends, including chef Marcus Samuelson, Sterling Cooper art director Salvatore Romano, and Baltimore-based entrepreneur Omar Little. The pilot begins with three contestants being given half an hour each to wow Rocco with a “signature dish.” A majority of them dealt with that daunting time constraint by simply not cooking the food. Although Rocco states that the Geoff’s rare monkfish “makes me really nervous for my guests,” the lad is allowed to stay. Would Britt’s Arctic char tartare incite similar concerns about parasite infection? Not really, no. It was a revelation, in fact. But her avocado puree? “Your avocado was tragic,” Rocco intones. “The dinner party will continue without you.”

This leaves Geoff—whose metaphors were more undercooked than his monkfish (“Cooking to me is like composing a symphony … and I’m a conductor,” he says)—and J.J., who has been led astray (“Rocco is definitely a person I look up to in the industry”). The host asks them, “What does January 16, 1920 mean to you?” and receives blank stares in return. That was the day that the Volstead Act went into effect and Prohibition began. The coy Rocco is getting around to saying that he wants these guys, each working separately with the same event planner, to plan a meal on the theme of the speakeasy.

Everyone’s ignorance of history serves him well here. If the guys were attempting to reflect the actual menu of an actual New York City speakeasy, they’d be serving ham sandwiches, some White Rock, and maybe a couple of feathers from the headdress of a 14-year-old showgirl. Instead, they go in a different direction, with Geoff elaborating a gangster fantasy involving a “pinstriped tablecloth” and J.J.’s idea of Cotton Club atmosphere involving harmonicas as place-cards. And as laughable as Rocco is when referring to Samuelson’s Red Rooster—where Barack Obama once held a $30,000-a-head fundraiser—as “a real Harlem speakeasy,” I do like one twist he throws at the competitors. Only after they’ve already planned their menus and shopped does he reveal that some of the guests have dietary restrictions, thus replicating the frustrating experience of hosting the kind of people who show up at your house saying they won’t eat veal, a pleasure far more tender than most food TV has to offer.