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“The Next Iron Chef” Does Competition Right
Monday, October 08, 2007 | posted by Mike

A fairly restful weekend for me equated to more food TV watching than I’ve done recently. It was a bit spread around, and it was good to reconnect with the Saturday morning programming on Food Network and the afternoon PBS lineup. I also flipped through a couple of my cookbooks, so I’m hoping that motivates me a bit to try and tackle some new recipes in the near future.

Of course, I capped it all off with the debut of The Next Iron Chef on Sunday evening, which had been preceded by an Iron Chef America marathon that took up much of the day. But the big event was certainly the unveiling of the new reality competition show.

Yes, usually I follow the phrase “reality competition” with a slight eye roll, but that’s OK. Even manufactured drama can be fun from time to time. And there is no denying that the Network put its A-team on this program, combining the less-polished, more natural look of The Next Food Network Star with the high-stakes expertise of Top Chef to create a nice balance. It’s a fun ride, and one worth checking out, especially since it will only run for eight episodes, I believe.

But the thing that really caught my eye was the glaring difference between this show and the three other cooking competition shows – the two mentioned above and Hell’s Kitchen. I was struck by the relationship between the contestants, which combined professional competitiveness with a presumably honest warmth and compassion for one another – in short, a collegial atmosphere of friendly competition that isn’t common among these sorts of shows.

That isn’t to say that other shows don’t have contestants that bond and form positive, supportive relationships. That’s certainly the case on the last season of TNFNS. But that comes about as the result of living together for a period of time and sharing time in competition, a factor that can breed camaraderie even in competitors. Here, they were trading shouts of support and good-natured trash talk right off the bat.

This was something more natural and immediate, and I think that it’s the result of the fact that all of these contestants are already acclaimed successes in their own right.

For so many reality contestants, the competition is their shot at the big time – a catapult from obscurity to fame (TNFNS) or a validation of a still somewhat young career (Top Chef). There is an inescapable insecurity in even the most self-assured contestant (I’m looking at you, Hung) that prevents them from being confident enough to just “play their own game” and know that it will be enough to win, or at least have it be enough for them to feel like they gave it their all.

Those contestants are fighting for their professional lives, which can make for compelling drama.

But there’s something also to be said for watching virtuosos duke it out just for bragging rights. Sure the winner gets a nice contract with Food Network and the exposure for his or her restaurant that comes with it, but my guess is that the “title” itself would be enough for many of them.

If this were basketball, these other shows would be the playoffs, with each competitor clawing and scratching to see who comes out on top. But TNICA is what would happen if LaBron James and Tim Duncan faced off all alone in a gym somewhere. It’s wide open and a blast to watch.

(By the way, those sort of one-on-one or two-on-two matches between professionals actually do happen and are apparently sights to behold. They say the intra-squad scrimmages among the original Dream Team were some of the most amazing basketball ever played.)

Oh, lest you think that everything about TNICA is good-natured and touchy-feely, Alton is here to disabuse you of that notion:

Make no mistake, said Brown, "The Next Iron Chef" isn't a run-of-the-mill reality, cooking show. This has been a food fight with flair between hardened experts -- so don't expect another version of Bravo's "Top Chef."

"Those people are one step up from Denny's," said a fiery Brown. "My mom could do that. There's nothing cheesy or cheap about (Iron Chef)."

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