When I was a kid, I thought Food Network was boring. Sure, I liked seeing the food and how to cook it, but there was no spark to keep my 9-year-old self captivated. Beyond Good Eats, with chef Alton Brown’s zany food lessons, it all seemed very blase.
Then, it all changed.
In 2005, Iron Chef America flipped the script and introduced cooking challenges, a competition-style way for viewers to learn how to cook. It wasn’t about just the food anymore; it was about the flashiest style, the quickest thinkers and what the chefs could do in a stringent time limit. They called it a “culinary battle,” and Food Network never looked back.
While the mornings and afternoons are still populated with down-home, low-key cooking shows like The Pioneer Woman or Giada DeLaurentiis’ show, Giada at Home, the early evenings and late nights are all about the competition. Now, the network is even bringing back a form of the original Iron Chef, called Iron Chef Gauntlet. The network has hit a sweet (or savory?) spot where the all the bases are covered, and it can appeal to every generation. Whatever you’re looking for, Food Network probably has something you’ll quickly become obsessed with.
Worst Cooks in America
Sometimes, cooking is hard. One time last year, I legitimately burned Easy Mac in my microwave. All it took to feel better about my cooking prowess? Watching one episode of Worst Cooks in America.
This show is an amalgamation of every bad food you’ve ever been forced to eat. In the season that recently ended, one of the primary contestants marinated her steak with ketchup and expected that it’d turn out to be delicious. Another made something that looked like sludge and called it a “fish surprise.”
The show is hosted by Anne Burrell and Rachael Ray, and they both take no prisoners leading their respective teams. They teach the contestants knife skills and tell them how to create dishes to impress their friends and family. The contestant who refuses to learn, makes mistakes or makes the worst dish gets sent home. At the end, Burrell and Ray take one contestant to cook a fancy meal for a panel of judges to decide who comes out victorious, no longer being called the Worst Cook in America.
Burrell and Ray truly make this show shine. Burrell has a quick wit and an unforgiving way of telling it like it is, while Ray leans softer and guides her contestants using laughter and humor. The pairing is unusual, but it’s one of the network’s best. This show could so easily be like American Idol, with the hosts there to be cruel to people who suck at what they’re trying to do, but Worst Cooks is funny and kind while still honestly teaching the contestants to cook. You can’t get better than that.
I’ve seen almost all the episodes of Chopped, a sad fact when you consider that the show has been on since 2007 and has 388 episodes, plus 21 specials. Chopped has branched off into celebrity competitions, redemption competitions, Chopped: Junior (the best kind of Chopped) for kids, Chopped All-Stars for chefs who have previously won, and many others. The show has won well-deserved awards for being a culinary entertainment powerhouse. It’s the best gateway to immerse yourself in everything Food Network.
In Chopped, the chefs get a basket with four ingredients, and they have 20-30 minutes to make a complete dish that features those ingredients. They can’t leave off or bury any of the gross ingredients, though, or they will be “chopped” by the three judges on the panel.
Ted Allen, the award-winning host of the show, told grubstreet.com that the pilot of the show originally had a much weirder premise.
“We made a little pilot at the Culinary School at the Art Institute of New York in a ridiculously hot room that was never intended for air,” Allen said. “The show was originally a lot more elaborate. It was set in a mansion, the host was a butler, the butler held a Chihuahua, and when a chef was chopped the losing dish was fed to the Chihuahua. And that pilot was really and truly created — I was not that host, which I’m okay with.”
The show as it stands today is a stressful watching experience, but it’s riveting. Chefs have to figure out how to turn gummy worms into a pleasant vinaigrette, or remember how the ice cream machine works in the last five minutes of the round. From the comfort of your living room, you can sadistically watch the chefs struggle to finish, which will make that last-minute paper you forgot about just seem a little bit easier. After all, at least you won’t get “chopped” on national television.
If you like Martha Stewart, organization and good homey recipes, The Kitchen is everything you could ever want. This is the only non-competition show on this list, but it deserves to be mentioned because it is the best talk show on television.
The show is in the early afternoon, and it features legitimate step-by-step cooking advice and teachings, as well as nifty craft projects that are often so simple it’ll shock you into organizing your home or apartment. It’s hosted by celebrity chefs Geoffrey Zakarian, Jeff Mauro, Katie Lee, Marcela Valladolid and Sunny Anderson, and they take turns telling the audience how to get their lives together, all while harmonizing and goofing around.
The show shines in diversity of opinion. Valladolid is from Tijuana, Mexico, and she cooks traditional Mexican dishes that are delicious and true to her upbringing. Lee is known for her prowess in homemade meals, and Mauro has been crowned “The Sandwich King.” Anderson is also a cookbook author who has made a name for herself making meals that are absurdly easy to prepare. As for Zakarian, he literally does everything on Food Network, including being an Iron Chef, a guest on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and 50,000 other shows and even settling a semi-recent lawsuit with President Donald Trump.
The Kitchen is not necessarily an exciting show to watch — all they’re doing is teaching you how to organize your room and how to cook fun dishes — but they do it in a way that feels like coming home to a kitchen full of friends. The show is a perfect way to relax on a weekday afternoon while learning something useful.
Beat Bobby Flay
Bobby Flay is a goddamn fox. He’s one of Food Network’s original celebrity chefs, and he deserves the accolade. Along with chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Alton Brown, he helped build Food Network to what it is today. Beat Bobby Flay is an incredible, exciting way for chefs to go up against arguably one of the best (and most charming) chefs of our time.
The show “shakes down in two rounds,” as Flay says at the beginning of every episode. First, two contestants must go through each other before they can get to Flay, and they have to make an ingredient of Flay’s choice the star of the dish. Usually he picks a fairly normal ingredient, like avocados or some sort of fish, and the two chefs battle it out to then go on to pick their “signature dish” to compete with Flay.
A panel of Flay’s friends, either chefs or celebrities, chooses which of the first-round contestants end up going up against him in the second round, and their goal is to choose the contestant they think has the best chance of beating Flay. The show mostly hinges on the audience egging on the two judges and the other two contestants as they roast Flay for everything he does.
The winning contestants typically are people who go outside of the box, especially with Asian cooking, something Flay does not have a ton of experience in. I can’t tell you how many times morons try to go against Flay with Latin-American cuisine, and they end up getting their butt kicked. I’m sorry, but it’s just never, ever a good idea to go up against Flay with a taco and expect to win. It’s just not smart.
Even when Flay wins, though, he is nice to the other contestants and makes sure to hug them and congratulate them after the round is over. For someone who has many, many restaurants, cookbooks and TV shows, you’d think he’d gloat a little more, but no, he’s just humble Bobby Flay, making horrible puns as he exits the kitchen.
People complain sometimes on social media that Flay wins “too many times,” but that’s what makes his losses so much sweeter. It takes a truly kick-ass chef to take him on, and when they do, it’s definitely a victory they can write home about.
Cooks vs. Cons
When I first heard of this show, I thought it involved chefs facing off against convicted criminals, but that’s surprisingly not the premise. Four random people don chef coats, whether they are chefs or not, and they cook intricate dishes for a panel of two judges. The judges, and the viewers, must decide throughout the episode if the person is a real-life, trained cook, or a “con,” meaning they aren’t a true chef.
The show is exciting and bases its success in short rounds and personable on-screen interviews. You get to know the chefs and can carefully consider whether they’re cooks or cons. Zakarian, a suit-wearing Food Network fiend, hosts Cooks vs. Cons (yes, as well as hosting The Kitchen and judging on Chopped, because he’s everywhere). Despite his uber-professional manner, he makes the show into a corny joke extravaganza.
In the format of the show, Zakarian chooses the first ingredient the chefs must deal with, as well as what they make in the first round. In the second round, they’re allowed to make whatever they want, but Zakarian still gets to choose their main ingredient. In past episodes, he’s chosen everything from “ballpark food” to juice to fruit jam.
Cooks vs. Cons even has a spinoff with a much better name, Bakers vs. Fakers, which I also recommend. Cooks vs. Cons is essentially The Voice for cooking, because it allows viewers to try and figure out who’s who based on their cooking skills alone. Even if you know for sure someone’s a con, their true profession will sometimes surprise you, too. The show bases its main drama on shattering stereotypes, and that’s something we all need a little more of.
Bonus: MasterChef Junior
MasterChef Junior deserves to be on the list because it is a food show, even though it’s on FOX instead of Food Network. Food Network is my go-to, but this show actually makes me switch the channel.
The problem with adult cooking competition shows are that the contestants can sometimes just be huge assholes. They fight, they’re mean, they try to sabotage each other, and there’s no friendliness in the kitchen whatsoever because the focus is on winning. In Gordon Ramsay’s terrifying FOX cooking show Hell’s Kitchen, he takes no prisoners and is known for completely ripping contestants apart for tiny mistakes. In MasterChef Junior, however, Ramsay shows his gentle side.
Ramsay guides the elementary- and middle school-aged kids through tough cooking challenges, and if they stumble, he uses his soft voice and teaching prowess to pick them back up. They learn, no doubt, but the show is never mean or cruel.
The kids have an impressive amount of skills. They can make a roux or a remoulade with no problem, and can maneuver equipment that I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be used for. I learned what pappardelle was by watching MasterChef Junior, being confused and Googling it.
The best part, though, is that the kids are so kind to each other. If one finishes, it’s essentially a custom to run over and offer to help someone who’s falling behind. It’s behavior you’d typically never see on other adult competition shows, and it’s a refreshing look into the non-combative mind of a kid. Plus, it’s so, so cute.
Master chef junior is wild like they have so much knowledge in their tiny little heads but they aren't even allowed to get a drivers permit— Oh its just patrick (@mustachedpat) March 31, 2017
Edited by Katherine White | firstname.lastname@example.org