When I think of “authentic” cuisine I inevitably imagine a grandmother or mother whacking a future Iron Chef contestant over the head with an oven mitt while teaching him — it is usually a him — her caponata recipe. But once that chef grows up, opens a restaurant or two, writes some cookbooks and goes on Iron Chef, his forebears’ culinary heirlooms are transformed — modernized, localized and downsized into a refined, colorful couple of dollops on a giant white plate. Authentic cuisine may have been the foundation of every great chef’s education, but the average American eater might not even be able to tell what that cuisine was, and chances are they don’t care.
In the case of televised cooking competitions like Iron Chef or Chopped, the dishes can best be described as imaginative. What even is that? is a justifiable response to seeing what Zak Pelaccio or Cat Cora has created out of the requisite unappetizing mystery ingredient on Iron Chef America. But the judges always seem to know exactly what something is, and how it does or does not work. The judges are restaurateurs, food critics, or celebrities who consider themselves foodies because they eat expensive food a lot. We don’t get to eat these dishes, so we can’t exactly appreciate or contest the criticisms. But we watch these shows religiously anyway.
A show that does focus on authenticity recently entered the mix: BBC America’s No Kitchen Required. The premise of the show: for the duration of an entire season, the same three chefs vie to impress the taste buds of locals in far-flung lands including Thailand, Fiji, New Zealand, Belize and, for some reason, Florida. Season 1’s chefs, the New York restaurateur Mike Psilakis, Chopped grand champion Madison Cowan, and international chef Kayne Raymond, forage for ingredients in these exotic (with the exception of Florida) locations and then present their attempts at authentic local food before a few discerning natives, who vote to crown one man the victor at the end of each episode.
Pro: viewers like to see the same contestants week after week, à la Project Runway or The Amazing Race (to which the producers of No Kitchen Required have compared the show). It helps viewers stay invested. This doesn’t often happen on cooking shows, but maybe that’s with good reason. Chefs have certain tricks up their sleeves: methods, ingredients, go-to dishes. Collect enough of a chef’s cookbooks and you’ll see them repeat these tricks over and over again. Fortunately on No Kitchen Required, there is enough other stuff going on besides cooking to keep us enticed.
Con: presenter Dr. (Doctor!) Shini Somara, who usually hosts more hard-hitting British shows about health and current events, has a habit of deliberately repeating very easy-to-understand information, usually while wearing nice, soft-looking henleys. The chefs nod patiently. Pregnant silences are punctuated with chirps from local fauna.
So the show is a bit like The Amazing Race, after all — the chefs do daredevilish things like repel down cliffs to procure their ingredients — and the fact that it is filmed pretty much entirely outdoors adds to its watchability. It is colorful and pretty the way The Amazing Race and The Bachelorette are colorful and pretty.
But the most fun comes when the local judges are eating the dishes and discussing them with each other. Their feedback is subtitled, but for whatever reason the chefs don’t get to learn what they’re saying. While the judges eat, the chefs are interviewed off to the side, and invariably they say things like, “I have no idea what they’re saying, so I’m kind of freaking out.” There is no point to keeping this language barrier up, and it only serves to exaggerate the differences between the chefs and their hosts.
In the episode set in Chiang Dao, Thailand, the Palong locals are not impressed with Michael’s Greek-style snake soup, or seemingly with any of the other chef’s dishes. “The foreigners do not use spices in the correct way,” one says, as Madison frowns at them irritably, arms folded, from a distance of about 20 yards. In the end, Michael wins, and while he exchanges gifts with the chefs’ hosts later that night, he displays his gratitude in a quintessentially American way, bowing, speaking slowly, and trying to sound humble. “We have learned so much about you,” he says, “and so much about ourselves.”
BBC America’s No Kitchen Required is currently showing repeat airings of Season 1 on Tuesdays at 11PM Eastern.