We get that appearing on television is part of the deal for chefs who want to build a brand. We've enjoyed seeing the telegenic, dimpled, earringed and tatted assisted-blond on everything from Check, Please! Bay Area and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations to Iron Chef America. What's more, we were sad Cosentino didn't become the next Iron Chef, though proud that he lasted almost to the end.
So when the premiere of Chefs vs. City was announced earlier this summer, we set our TiVo's Season Pass. The Food Network show pairs Cosentino with the equally telegenic Aarón Sanchez of N.Y.'s Centrico and Paladar. We don't know quite what we expected, but what we got was a fake-macho mashup of The Amazing Race, Survivor, Fear Factor, and Man v. Food, with no more than a grudging nod to actual culinary knowledge or craft along the way. In each episode, our boys go up against local chefs or foodies to complete five food-related challenges, ending in a foot race for the finish line. (Suspiciously, there's a near-photo finish almost every time.)
Ritualistically, our boys and their opponents trash-talk, and with little imagination. In every town -- Boston, say, up against plump restaurateurs the De Pesa brothers -- the locals say, "Nobody comes to our town and beats us! Nobody!" and Sanchez says, "Chris and I are Food Network chefs! We're here to represent!" Minor variations abound, but you're guaranteed to hear, "We're in it to win it!" and, "We've gotta bring our A game!" Repeatedly. Ad nauseam, actually.
In fact, repetition is the name of the game, and clichés like "mouthwatering fare" and "food capital of the world" abound. As the contestants drive around their city in SUVs, we're treated to endless cries of "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" Endless.
The challenges are embarrassingly written in unscanned rhymed doggerel. Long, long doggerel. The New Orleans challenge begins: "Now that you're here, no time for vacation/ There's work to be done at Woodland Plantation." We'll spare you the following six lines.
Sometimes the challenges involve actual food skills, such as shucking oysters, slicing smoked fish, or splitting a wheel of Parmesan. But in virtually every episode there's a challenge of the kind we hate, one that disrespects food, even insults it. The producers force contestants to eat too much, stuffing their way through hundred-item buffets in Las Vegas and Boston, or enormous sundaes in New Orleans. They eat foods that cause pain or seem disgusting, foods that in another context would be delicious: super-hot chile-laced dishes (Sanchez is a world-class sweater and moaner); chicken feet, jellyfish, and congealed pigs' blood; and ripe goat cheese. Insects (mealworms, crickets, huge grasshoppers) inevitably appear. No scenes of actual vomiting, but shots of gacking are common. "I don't even like cheese," one of the De Pesas says, "and now I won't eat it for at least a year." And he owns an Italian restaurant!
And really, Food Network, Pat O'Brien's for cocktails in New Orleans? Dylan's Candy Bar in New York? Boudin Bakery in S.F.? That's your idea of secret places local foodies aren't likely to know about, as the show's premise suggests? Any 5-year-old could spot those as tourist traps.
We kinda wish that the show would just fold its tents and sneak away quietly into the night, but Chefs vs. City is still in heavy rotation. And, in classic train-wreck fashion, we can't look away. (We're still checking our TiVo for the Chicago episode.) But please, Food Network execs, PLEASE don't waste these guys on any possible Season Two! They've got better fish to fry. Literally.