Cutthroat Kitchen is burning up the summer, off to a strong start with its fourth season on Food Network. I don't know whether to love it, hate it, or to make a bread pudding after tearing up my love-hate and covering it with an "I see your class struggles, First World" custard topped by a caramelized "WTF" glaze.
Cutthroat Kitchen, which airs on Sunday nights, is a performance game show where host Alton Brown and one taste-testing judge select one winner from four chef-testants. The contestants are put through three elimination cooking rounds, with one voted off each round. Throughout the game, the chefs bid on various sabotages to bestow upon their competitors, hoping to be the last chef standing and the only cash prize winner. Can you dice while wearing handcuffs soldered to a spacer bar? Can you cook Thanksgiving dinner using only a pocketknife? Can you make applesauce if your apples are stolen and replaced with sour apple gummy candy? Or do you love the schadenfreude of watching bravado fade while chefs creatively cope with evil pranks? Then Cutthroat Kitchen is for you!
Watching the show is a bit painful because the challenges can be cruel (and often result in unappetizing food), but the set-up is compelling. If I tune in I end up watching through to the end, because I get hooked rooting for one contestant or because I need to see how a chef resolves a crisis she's been given.
The weird thing, though, is that I'm often repelled as well, because the auctioned items all too often remind me of working with at-risk families through social services agencies. The high-low class struggles that are the subtext of the show are a bizarre juxtaposition against the professional kitchen. I wouldn't expect that watching a skilled chef use a high-end Anti-Griddle or preparing a fine cut of beef would remind me of when I've worked in domestic violence shelters and food closets, or conducted home visits to hungry families, but it happens every time.
I can't help but think of food pantries when each round starts by letting contestants select ingredients from a glass-walled closet. They make frenzied grabs for food and spices that they may not be able to keep when preparing their dish. When you help people access donations in real food pantries you see the opposite of grabbing behavior. You see careful choices from grateful people while they tell you all sorts of hardship stories that range from the ages of the their children living with chronic hunger to losing a month's worth of food when the power was shut off because of an inability to pay the electric bill. What I wouldn't give to be able to turn needy families loose in that Cutthroat Kitchen pantry.
More directly, it seems like most of the sabotages are attempts to replicate the types of situations that are daily life for people who live near or below the poverty line and who experience obstacles, like shut-off power, on the regular. Looking back throughout recent episodes, I found that the sabotages fell into categories including:
- making a chef cook all of their food using one heat replacement item,like a heat gun or a "As Seen on TV" appliance
- requiring a chef to use a substandard workspace or tools, like only using their hands or working on a counter made of pizza boxes
- making a chef adopt some sort of limiting physical disability, like strapping spatulas to their hands
- creating hardships for a chef to get ingredients, like making them dig them out of a fake garden
- swapping the ingredients a chef selected for sub-standard or peculiar food items
These sabotages are very often close to real-life hardships, and some verge on mocking the poor from the privileged vantage-point of a professional, stocked kitchen. Tons of families rely on one heat source in broken kitchens that landlords won't repair or that they themselves can't afford to fix. One recent episode had a contestant forced to cook Pasta Bolognese using only an espresso pot, and in another episode a chef had to use only a heat lamp. I've visited families living in houses, apartments, vans and hotel rooms where the only cooking sources were tea kettles, coffee makers, open fires, toaster ovens or electric griddles, not to mention families who only had hot water from the tap, if that. I've lived in a makeshift studio apartment with only a microwave during days when dinner might be based upon the amount of change in the jar propped on top of my one appliance. The parallels might only be in subtext, but they are clearly there.
This video shows how the producers test their obstacle ideas.
The food swaps are where the worst class commentary plays out. Typically the swaps are meant to inspire groans of disgust because the chef will be given low-brow food in place of their fresh, high-quality ingredients. In this season's opening episode, "I Can't Believe It's Not Udder," a chef needed to make a breakfast sandwich from the remains of a complimentary hotel breakfast bar. The serving trays were presented to him with droll glee by Alton, who disparaged the pre-packaged pastries, string cheese, butter pats and remains of oatmeal and hashbrowns. The chef was so repulsed he immediately covered the rejected oatmeal and did his best to pick peppers out of the hashbrowns to use, only to lose the round with his creations. He stormed off the set.
So while we are watching this fit and wondering how the chef will cope, we are aware that not only do thousands of people eat food from similar breakfast buffets on the regular, but they are marketed as perks. Worse, those foods were prepared and served by minimum-wage earners who can't afford high-quality ingredients themselves, and that there are certainly workers who would happily take those leftovers home to feed their families if they were allowed to do so. I've happily lined up for similar buffets, and have fed my sons from them, as well as other foods panned on the show. I guess we're low class as far at Cutthroat is concerned.
Some of the Cutthroat food switch outs aren't only meant to be challenging, but are paraded to be experienced as super gross. Watching chipped beef or chicken slog from a can when other chefs are using prime meat, for example, or seeing fish sticks run up against fresh ahi tuna as the judge takes a bite, is meant to be cringetastic. The class politics inherit in showing disgust at the food of others is complicated.
Alton runs an after-show where the judges learn the back story to the challenges. The video of celebrity judge Giada De Laurentiis completely repulsed at the canned chicken used in a sabotage might be one of the best ways to understand the classism at play, with a reference to cat food in the mix.
I'm not saying that I would be thrilled to cook with the same if I didn't have to, but I can't help but remember watching mothers feeling grateful to find any protein source in food cabinets where canned vegetables dominate and remember times in my life where frugality was essential.
Class drama plays out between the contestants, too, which is a pervasive dynamic in the restaurant industry. Pro kitchens run on competitive hierarchies within individual kitchens and between restaurants of differing rankings. The majority of food service professionals make very low wages and work long, late hours. Some are able to rise to executive salaries or ownership by working their way up and by seeking expensive training. Becoming proficient with expensive cuts of meat and ingredients takes money—either your own, or by working for restaurants with moneyed patrons. When chefs on Cutthroat Kitchen trash talk each other, tossing shade to a sous chef from a standard fare restaurant in Kansas or a suburban caterer, those slams come with lots of class drama attached. One recent contestant called himself "an Asian Hillbilly." When he had to work in handcuffs, another contestant quipped that it probably wasn't the first time. The cook saddled with the hotel breakfast buffet was dismissed as a "bougie chef."
This high-low tension is one of Food Network's favorite ways to represent and reflects contemporary American Dream class drama. Making chefs cope with real people problems like sub-par ingredients is a balance to Ina Garten's field trips in the Hamptons and her constant reminders to buy GOOD cheese and to only use THE BEST tomatoes. (Even Ina has a bit of high-low in her highness, though. Look at her brand name: Barefoot Contessa. She knows what she's doing.)
Food Network's other popular game show plays out the same high-low themes as we see in Cutthroat Kitchen. In Chopped, contestants get one food basket of random ingredients and have to make it work. The ingredients typically mix high and low, with the hook being how awesome chefs with refined palates will deal with county fair cotton candy or fast-food tacos, and whether they'll be skilled enough to know how to use ingredients that you can only be familiar with if you have high-on-the-hog money of your own (a recent contestant cited his extensive European travels as his inspiration)—or work for those who do. Will the the chef-testants know how to best use the Mangalitsa bacon or the black truffle? Can they make frozen okra fit in their dish? Hungry parents receiving assistance grapple with more down-to-earth versions of these questions every day, matching the odd ingredients gathered from the local food pantry to what's left in their kitchen, and stretching it all to meet their family's needs.
The extra cruel thing about Cutthroat Kitchen is that the winners usually don't take home much money. Each starts with $25,000, but they each spend most of it to buy sabotages. Additionally, they are sometimes fined by Alton, if they do something like drop an egg from the sabotage egg hat they had to wear while cooking. They only keep what remains. Trying to save money typically means that you'll go home early because you ended up cooking with the convenience store hot dog cooker or wasted time extracting limes from Corona bottles in order to make your key lime pie. Alton collects the money with maniacal glee, standing in for every pawn broker, car title loan store and utility company levying late fees and re-connection charges on people struggling to get by.
Still, one chef does triumph and takes home some prize money, plus survival bragging rights. That's the ultimate appeal of Cutthroat Kitchen, and maybe it's a comfort dish in its own way. It's one of the things that hooks me in, and makes me cheer for the contestants who have the scrappy attitudes that feel familiar, suggesting that they may have found their way to food service when they truly needed a job. In Cutthroat Kitchen, even if obstacles are thrown down and you have to make a whisk out of foil and use a paint dryer to cook your egg substitute, you ultimately can do it and stand alongside omelets prepared the French way. High-low class drama, presented on small plates with a side of cash. It's the American Dream in one dish, class struggles and all.
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