As fresh as last week’s leftovers, NBC’s “Food Fighters” is the TV dinner of culinary competitions. Featuring elements recycled from so many similar shows, most of them on cable, the eight-episode summer series might as well be dubbed “IronMasterTop Chef Chopped Throwdown.” That may not have mattered if the folksy appeal of the premise — home cooks challenge professional chefs — weren’t lost in a muddled whirl of fast-paced, low-impact execution. It was originally ordered and shot more than a year ago, and network expectations can’t be too high for a show that’s all filler and somehow never filling.
One unexpected side effect of the long gap between production and broadcast: Host Adam Richman (“Man vs. Food”) recently made headlines both for his considerable weight loss and for some nasty exchanges he had with Twitter followers. That led to the postponement of his Travel Channel show “Man Finds Food,” which had been set to launch earlier this month. Perhaps it’ll mean a few extra “Food Fighters”-related pieces in the media, but the lingering controversy is so minimal it seems unlikely to help or hurt this series either way.
There’s certainly nothing spicy onscreen in this bland concoction of reality tropes. Each week, one of “America’s best home cooks” enters the “Food Fighter arena” to take on a series of five professional chefs, challenging each pro to a different dish from a preselected menu of the amateur’s best dishes. The decision of whose cuisine reigns supreme is left up to a sequestered panel of five everyday citizen judges, who vote their preference without knowing who cooked what. In victory, the home chefs are rewarded with increasing levels of cash prizes up to a maximum of $100,000 if they win all five battles. A loss, however, doesn’t mean elimination; they just miss out on the cash for that round and move on to face the next contender.
Introducing one home chef, five professional competitors, and five cooking battles complete with judging is a lot to handle in a single hour, and “Food Fighters” rushes from one ingredient to the next with little finesse. As food porn, the show is a complete failure. Each individual episode must have been a nightmare to tape (and a serious chore to attend in the audience), but the battles are reduced to no more than few minutes onscreen, leaving little time for process or insight. Richman doesn’t add much beyond canned dramatic observations like, “If the wrappers tear they’re gonna flood with oil!” and “Whoa, that’s a lot of hot sauce!”
The premiere installment’s liveliest moments spring from guest challengers Marcel Vigneron and Lorena Garcia, two veterans of the Bravo franchise “Top Chef” (it’s in the NBC Universal family, natch) well versed in matching big personalities and foodie TV. Vigneron demonstrates the difference an aggressive competitor can make, while Garcia is a dynamo capable of turning a taco challenge into a one-woman show.
Perhaps the lesson is that when it comes to cooking TV, it’s best to leave it to the pros.