The soundstage’s kitchen didn’t have a dishwasher, so he was forced to make dishwasher salmon in the oven instead—like some kind of hack.
This isStore-Bought Is Fine, a monthly column by James Beard Award nominated author Rax King on TV chefs, food media, and the class barriers of cuisine.
I was twenty when I cooked the worst dish I’ve ever made. It was a Bolognese sauce, something I cooked often then. I had no reason to believe it would betray me, but it managed to go wrong every step of the way. While peeling carrots for the mirepoix, I slipped and shredded the corner of my knuckle. It didn’t hurt, but bled so profusely that I had to stop all food prep so that I could wrap the finger in a comical armature of gauze and medical tape. Thus encumbered, I found the rest of the recipe forbidding and difficult. My beef, for whatever reason, wouldn’t brown properly. The fat splashed back into my face when I tried to drain it. And, after the first hour of simmering, I uncovered my pot to see that the whole mix was an unappetizing landscape of grey crumbles—not the rich, clay-colored slurry that I’d been expecting.
At this stage, I wasn’t much of a cook. I was competent in the kitchen but not graceful or intuitive: I could follow basic instructions without too much trouble, but lacked any of the kitchen instincts that now allow me to rescue most dishes even after they’ve gone wrong. And I had nothing memorized. In order to cook anything, I needed the recipe in front of me. If I’d been asked to cook my signature dish, as the contestants on Worst Cooks in America are asked to do during their auditions, I would have choked. Signature dish? Isn’t that for, like, chefs?
Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America embodies many of my least favorite aspects of contemporary food entertainment. The premise is that a dozen or so kitchen novices are split into two teams to compete with each other in a culinary boot camp. The teams are led by celebrity chefs Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay (the show’s hosts have changed several times since the beginning, but I’ll be looking at the early seasons hosted by these two). The two hosts laugh and point and preen and show off and, yes, teach their team members how to perform basic kitchen tasks from dicing an onion to deboning and pan-frying a fish. The contestant who best absorbs the culinary education is crowned the winner.
I’ll admit that I, too, have laughed at some of the contestants’ more out-there “signature dishes.” That’s part of the stated fun of the show, and one strongly suspects that savvy contestants play up their kitchen cluelessness for the camera. I remember one contestant’s signature salmon preparation was a salmon filet wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked in the steam of the dishwasher (!). But the soundstage’s kitchen didn’t have a dishwasher, so he was forced to make dishwasher salmon in the oven instead, like some kind of hack. You watch people engaged in this sort of hapless behavior and wonder how they’ve managed to survive into adulthood, much less parlay their lack of cooking skills into a chance to win $25,000 and a Food Network branded kitchenware set.
At the same time, we all start off as the worst cooks in America, no? Nobody is born julienning identical strips of red bell pepper. Nobody is born doing anything—we learn every skill we know from the people who are good enough to teach us. And I don’t know how Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay learned to cook, but I certainly didn’t learn it from two sneering celebrities holding up pieces of onion, asking the camera why my diced vegetables aren’t the same size. Most people don’t. Professional kitchens may be harder and meaner environments than mommy’s house, but the show’s deliberate unkindness is another beast entirely. In professional kitchens, chefs shout unkindly at you because they want you to move faster to get dishes out on time. In the Worst Cooks kitchen, celebrity chefs shout unkindly at you to remind you that you are a dipshit who can’t even sear a steak properly. Neither is good, but at least one serves a purpose.
The devastating Bolognese that ruined my evening all those years ago was, I’m sorry to say, a dish that I’d been hoping to serve to my boyfriend at the time, the closest thing I had to a signature dish. And I’m even sorrier to say that this boyfriend was a professional chef. We were playing house a lot that year, he and I; he’d come to my place after a long shift in the kitchen, and the last thing he wanted was to cook more, which I liked. I fancied our routine was subversive in its mundanity: He’d come by, kick his shoes off, put his feet up, and I’d serve him dinner and a drink, and somehow this was supposed to be more interesting than the identical version of it that many actual wives all over the country were performing for their husbands. Why was it different when we did it? Because he was a self-described Marxist, or something like that. I don’t know. I never thought it all the way through.
Normally, he was a good sport about my kitchen errors. They were mostly minor, and I didn’t mind when he corrected them as he ate my food. The budding food lover in me wanted to learn, and the self-flagellating girl in me wanted to be called out for my kitchen screw-ups. But on this night, he and I both knew that I’d cooked something inedible. He tried not to giggle as I bad-temperedly ladled pebbles of unappetizing meat sauce onto noodles, but when I set the ugly plate in front of him, he could hold it in no longer.
“Babe,” he said, through laughter. “What happened?”
I’ve cooked many screwed up dishes since that night, burned many expensive cuts of meat, under-kneaded breads, overbaked pies. And every time I make a mistake in the kitchen, I hear him in my head, amused despite himself, pointing a finger at the person who had just made him dinner. Babe, what happened? I’ll tell you what happened, buddy: I made you food. I went to the grocery store, loaded a basket with ingredients, shlepped them home, and prepared them in what I believed would be a manner that you would like—and yes, I miscalculated some things, but still, you’re welcome to go home and make your own damn food if you don’t like it.
This logic doesn’t map perfectly onto the premise of Worst Cooks in America. That night, I was performing a service for someone I loved; on Worst Cooks, contestants have signed up to be berated by professionals for their inability to do the same. They are there, in short, because they agree that they’re terrible. But I still watch these people with their quivering hands, holding massive chef’s knives in the most unsafe way imaginable, trying so hard to dice an onion the way Bobby Flay showed them because that $25,000 would really change their lives, and sometimes they do a pretty good job and get mild praise, and sometimes they do an appalling job and have to live out their “babe, what happened” moments on television for an audience whose favorite thing is to see them fail. It hurts to think about. And it hurts even more when I consider how funny I find some of these people’s catastrophic kitchen errors myself—how much I, too, laugh at their honest mistakes if I’m not careful.
I need to remember that I’m not improving so I can impress people who might otherwise laugh at me.
Most of us viewers are probably closer to the contestants’ skill level than the hosts’. Our mistakes may not be as flamboyant, but I’d still be willing to wager that we mis-chop, and burn, and under-brown, and spill, and drop more vegetables than we care to admit when we flip them in our pans—and yet, as viewers, we’ve put ourselves firmly in Burrell and Flay’s camp. We agree that this stuff is really basic. We’re a little appalled that these people don’t know any of it. In one episode, when Burrell and Flay visit the contestants at the dorm-like apartment they share and realize they’ve been ordering delivery rather than cooking for themselves, we agree that this is unacceptable. Why are we so eager to turn coat for these celebrity chefs? What is it about their authority that charms us into abandoning our teammates on team Not All That Great At Cooking?
I’d hypothesize that no matter how fun it is to watch people ostentatiously screw up, it’s a bad call to turn screw-ups into entertainment. Worst Cooks in America draws something mean out of its hosts and transfers that meanness onto us viewers, puts us into a subjective and judgmental role that isn’t good for us. It does real damage to us over time, jeering at other people’s faults. It turns us cruel and, simultaneously, hypersensitive: We become so finely attuned to the mistakes of others that we live in terror of making our own mistakes. We know on some level that it’s no fun being on the other side of that pointing finger. And it’s especially ridiculous for us to sit in judgment when the vast majority of us aren’t world class chefs. Who the hell am I to sit at home with a bowl of instant ramen, my shirt dotted with broth as I say, “No, don’t flip that fish yet! Dammit! Now the skin’s going to stick to the pan.”
I’d be interested to see a version of Worst Cooks that functions as a sincere, dedicated classroom, rather than equal parts education and mockery. Something like Good Eats, but featuring a roomful of acolytes who are learning kitchen skills in real time. We’d probably skip the audition and signature dish scenes entirely, since this show is about kindness and pedagogy, and has no place for self-effacing showboating. People could ask their questions and make their mistakes without having to worry that in the editing room, those questions and mistakes will be cut together with an over-the-top eye roll from one of the hosts who’s supposed to be teaching them valuable skills.
It’s implausible. It doesn’t sound like very good TV. But at the end of the day, I feel about Worst Cooks in America the way that I feel about any reality show that asks its contestants to humiliate themselves for a chance at victory: I identify more with the humiliation than the humiliators. I hear my old boyfriend calling me babe and asking what happened. I remember how much it hurt my feelings even though I laughed at myself in the moment as I knew I was expected to. I remember how much I wished he’d said something a little nicer even if the food I’d made was admittedly inedible, and how I don’t like the idea of partaking in a culture that thinks of all those emotions as fair game for public entertainment.
Cooking is a sensitive thing. Most of our earliest experiences’ with it are being cooked for by a parent or guardian, someone in a caretaking role. We learn to associate cooking with care. The cooking on Worst Cooks in America rarely looks like care. It’s vulgar in its successes as well as its errors—when one of the two hosts performs even a basic kitchen task, they do it in a way that’s so loudly expert that it’s hard not to see it as showing off, even though these people have been cooking professionally for so long that this stuff is just muscle memory to them. The hosts look like they’re showing off because we’ve just seen them openly laughing at their crews of rookies for making rookie mistakes, hamming up especially basic mistakes for the camera. The whole performance is meanness after meanness. When contestants are able to absorb the knowledge that they’re supposedly here to absorb, they do so not because of the effectiveness of the hosts’ teaching, but in spite of its defects.
I haven’t seen that old boyfriend of mine in years, though as I’ve noted in a previous installment of this column, he went on to lose to Bobby Flay on an episode of Beat Bobby Flay. (Nyah, nyah.) But I wouldn’t mind making him one last plate of spaghetti Bolognese. It would be perfect this time, and nary a “babe, what happened” would pass his lips, but part of me knows that it wouldn’t matter. Because no matter how much I learn and improve in the kitchen, I need to remember that I’m not improving so I can impress people who might otherwise laugh at me. The messy work of the home kitchen is incompatible with the thankless labor of trying not to be someone who gets laughed at. Mistakes happen, even to professionals. Instead, I can cook food that I’m excited to eat, and hope it goes well, and shrug it off when it goes poorly. I’m the only audience for my cooking anymore, and nobody’s standards need to matter but my own.
Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated bitch. Her work can also be found in Glamour, MEL Magazine, Catapult, and elsewhere. Look out for her monthly column Store-Bought Is Fine for hot takes about the Food Network, and her essay collection Tacky (Vintage 2021).