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TV’s Food Show Evolution

Cooking competition series focus on amateur-pro dynamic serve up tasty ratings

If cooking shows have traditionally been about the pros showing the public how it’s done, reality TV has slowly been evolving away from that foundation. Today, while many shows still focus on one kind of pro getting judged by another pro, a growing number of series have begun considering their judges “mentors” (a la “The Voice” and “So You Think You Can Dance”) and introduced amateurs into the competition. Today’s series are likely to be more instructive and inclusive — a kinder, gentler food competition trend.

The Taste is the equivalent of watching a master class,” says Tamara Reynolds, Unique Eats contributor and chef-owner of catering firm Van Alst Kitchen — a Traveling Feast. “You can tell quickly if someone has what it takes to make it to the next step professionally.”

And, she notes, hands-on approaches from established professionals benefit the celebrity chefs, “because it strengthens their brand and gives it an extra dimension.”
Gordon Ramsay’s shows on Fox offer a mix of pros and amateurs, but this fall, he’ll oversee a series with a true mix of mentorship, competition and amateurs with “Junior MasterChef,” which pairs 8- to 12-year-old cooks with mentors.

“There’s something quite amazing working with raw talent and it’s five times easier than working with pro talent,” he says. “Pro chefs are so formulated; they have so much training it becomes boring. Amateurs are far more susceptible to what’s being offered.”

That said, these trends are less brand-new than a slow evolution (“Junior MasterChef” first ran in Britain from 1994-99). Food Network and Cooking Channel’s senior VP of programming Allison Page says the use of amateurs and mentors has long been part of its own spice shelf: “As Food Network developed as a brand, it was obvious our experts were important to the programming mix. … Food Network Star winners benefit greatly from our legacy talent hosting and mentoring along the competitive journey.” Some “Food Network Star” contestants are professional chefs,  but some, like season five winner Melissa d’Arabian, were stay-at-home mothers before being launched into the professional world of TV cooking with her “Ten Dollar Dinners.”

“On a basic level we enjoy watching other people squirm and be uncomfortable,” says d’Arabian of the interest viewers have in watching amateurs on TV. “On another level, people like to see themselves on TV succeeding. If they see a stay-at-home mom go out and be successful, they say ‘good for them.’ ”

Pros also benefit from jumping in as judges, mentors and sometimes even contestants; The Taste’s blind taste test is a risk for them, says Chris Coelen, exec producer on the ABC competition series. “They have big careers and brands, and if they think they’re eating salmon and it’s really tuna, you have the big potential to look like an idiot,” he says. “But they also look honest and brave for doing it.”

Suggests Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, budget considerations might be a factor in the use of amateurs, who cost a lot less than a celebrity professional chef to have in the cast.

“Everybody is in do-it-yourself mode,” he says. “These shows are slowly training audiences to realize you don’t need to be a four-star chef or go to a major school to bring new ideas to the table or the kitchen. These experts are evolving themselves out of a job.”

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