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Whipping Up A Star Chef From Scratch

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page Y04

'Cooking Under Fire'

Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on WETA

(premiere at 8 p.m.)

The tagline you'll never see: Aspiring chefs duke it out with giant shrimp heads and undercooked asparagus!

The basics: Twelve cooks vie to win the top job at a New York restaurant in a reality-style series that explores what it takes to be a great chef. Contestants are assigned a task in each episode -- cooking an egg, for example -- and are judged on the excellence of their edibles. It's a long road from line cook to Bobby Flay-dom, and these contestants have a lot to learn: The judges want creativity, organization and an encyclopedic knowledge of foodstuffs, not to mention flawless taste buds. In each episode, the underperformer is "86'd," restaurant lingo for fired, until one contestant gets to don the restaurant's top toque. Among the judges are author Michael Ruhlman and celebrity chefs Ming Tsai and Todd English.

The lowdown: Thanks to the popularity of chefs such as Mario Batali and Rachel Ray, as well as America's seemingly insatiable appetite for reality shows, "Cooking" has a chance to catch fire with audiences. The dishes whipped up in the battle kitchen don't have the same "wow!" factor seen on other cooking shows, but that's hardly the point. The program's aim is educational, portraying the unglamorous side of a chef's life: The contestants even have to clean the kitchen at the end of each episode.

Reality check: This is a refreshing departure from the usual reality-show recipe, but the hosts are industry experts, not entertainers, and are about as wooden as your favorite kitchen spoon. The contestants don't add much flavor -- even when they're caught in some of the typical orchestrated drama that's become a requirement for any self-respecting reality show. But while the show could use a little spice, its cooking lessons will nourish the needs of the average armchair chef.

-- Andrea Caumont


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