Cooking vs cheffing

I’ve been watching a lot of Food Network shows lately because they just showed up on Netflix, and one of the ones I got into was Worst Cooks in America. I had to try it twice because the first episode just seemed too mean, but after a while I figured out that the chefs (Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell, in the seasons I watched) are actually really committed to trying to help these people become better at cooking. And it’s really amazing what they can do by the end – it’s routine for the final judges (chefs and restauranteurs) to joke about replacing their own line cooks with the finalists, and say their food really is restaurant quality. They char octopus, serve tuna tartare, and make their own pasta and gelato. Their loved ones, who nominated them and generally ran away from their cooking, eat their food and praise it wildly (my favorite episodes).

Still, the show kind of drives me crazy. I mean, it’s a reality competition show, so of course it has to have a ridiculously high standard and people getting eliminated, but it frustrates me because it seems like they try to teach them too many things, and they don’t give them enough time, and criticize them too harshly, and then half of them don’t really learn to cook anyway because they get eliminated almost immediately. And these are people that are so courageous, they are willing to be on television doing something they do really badly, and trying to learn to do it better. I would not do that even if I was guaranteed $10,000, let alone just for a chance at it.

Sometimes they go home and say that they were inspired and they’re going to keep working on it on their own, but often they’re just sad and conclude that there’s no way they can learn to cook. Which is crazy, because I would probably do badly in the some of the challenges that they get, but I’m a really decent home cook already.

The thing that really struck me was one of the first episodes I saw where the chefs are trying to teach the terrible cooks to make breakfast. They tell them they have to make eggs one of the ways that they demo making them, and vanilla maple syrup, and bacon or sausage. First of all that’s a lot of things, and one of them is fancy, but OK. And then halfway through the chefs tell them – actually, you have to make eggs all four ways! (Sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, and poached.) Like, come on, no one actually does that except short-order breakfast cooks. I do an over-easy egg as part of my breakfast nearly every day and about half the time, I either break the yolk or overcook it. But it just doesn’t matter that much, because I’m still happy to eat it anyway. I’m not going to waste an egg because I broke the yolk and start all over. That’s expensive (especially when you eat pasture-raised eggs). But the chefs demand perfection.

They do start them off on pretty simple stuff – in the early episodes, they tend to be making pizza, stir-fry, breakfast, pan-fried meat and mashed potatoes (sometimes with a vegetable side). And they do give them tips and demo the cooking. But it rapidly gets really crazy, and they always add a twist, and never give them enough time. Sure, when you’re cooking you need to manage your time because it sucks when dinner is at ten. But if you’re doing wild things like filleting a fish, or making a roulade with stuffing and wrapping it in caul fat (incidentally, the show taught me a lot of interesting but useless-to-me things about cooking meat), that’s fancy and unusual and it takes a while. And unless you forgot to read your recipe (a major no-no!) there shouldn’t be any surprises in the middle of a cooking session. And all this with people who literally know almost nothing at the beginning. One of them adds a cup of water to Benedict sauce instead of a tablespoon (twice). They set things on fire. They peel carrots by standing them on their ends and using a knife. One of them tried to make a grilled cheese by putting cheese on the grill (and not halloumi, but melting cheese). It’s kind of terrifying to watch.

But the real skill of the home cook is stuff like this:

6:25pm: Look in refrigerator, mentally whine about how I have no food I want to eat.
6:30pm: Stare at refrigerator some more. Notice pesto jar and small end of ready-cooked polenta loaf. Polenta. With pesto? Hey, those are both Italian, I bet that would work. Hm, are the dregs of spinach still good? Maybe. How about an egg?
6:35pm: Rescue decent spinach, slice and microwave polenta on top of spinach, fry egg.
6:48pm: Sit down to nice-looking meal of pesto polenta on a bed of spinach with a fried egg.
6:55pm: Look at empty plate. Think “Little too much pesto, but that was good!”

Home cooking isn’t about cutting potatoes into perfect cubes and making vanilla maple syrup and cooking eggs in four different ways and filleting your own fish, and then having a chef judge every little choice you made. (Anne Burrell would have wanted me to make my own polenta and pesto, and use less of the pesto. But I’m not Anne Burrell and I was happy to have ready-made items.) It’s looking at what’s in the fridge and pantry and concocting something that tastes good and doesn’t take forever to make. It’s not sending you to the grocery store for things you’ve never eaten, it’s finding recipes you are familiar with, or looking things up on the internet before you try to buy them. It’s much simpler than they make it seem, because chefs are chefs and most of us are just cooks. I know it makes better TV the way they do it, but I wish I’d get to see all these people really learn to just cook like regular humans cook.

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