Michelle Obama appears on 'Iron Chef America'; 'Worst Cooks in America' premieres

By Emily Yahr
Saturday, January 2, 2010

For the cooking-challenged, watching Food Network can be a terrifying and humiliating experience. All that slicing and dicing and chopping and souffle-ing crushes the soul of someone who at best can make a decent peanut butter sandwich and, at worst, once almost set a bowl of Jell-O on fire.

So, in keeping with every niche channel's desire to reach a larger audience, Food Network seems to have a theme in mind for 2010: relatability. Riding high after jumping 26 percent in total viewers in 2009, the cable channel kicks off the new year with two shows pushing an "everyday American" theme on Sunday night. It begins with a two-hour "Iron Chef America" featuring White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford (and very special guest star Michelle Obama), followed by an attempt to draw in a non-foodie audience with a new series, "Worst Cooks in America."

On "Iron Chef," food superstars Comerford, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse meet in Washington for a trip to the White House. The first lady, whose domestic agenda includes promoting healthy eating, shows up in a theme-appropriate orange dress reminiscent of a crisp vegetable. She informs the chefs that the secret (and required) ingredient for the food competition -- in which three judges decide whose dishes are most delicious -- is anything in the White House garden.

"It's doing something fresh and doing something seasonal that every average and regular American can do in their home," Comerford explains about the garden in a clip provided by Food Network, which did not release an advance review copy of the episode. (Presumably to prevent spoilers: Can Comerford, who has worked at the White House for 14 years, and Flay take down Lagasse and Batali in the contest?)

Meanwhile, it's the opposite end of the spectrum with "Worst Cooks," which appeals to Average Joes and Janes on a completely different level. The highly entertaining, schadenfreude-filled hour starts with lines wrapped around city blocks as people eagerly try to prove their horrific cooking skills in hopes of landing a spot on the show. The producers and judges select the 24 most abject contestants for the premiere -- and, we assume, those with personalities most appropriate for reality TV.

"My kids cry every time I make a meal," says the beaming Jen from Rhode Island, an adorable blond mom of four.

Chefs and hosts Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan take everyone back to a kitchen, where they will participate in cook-offs over the next 10 days. The top two will compete in the final challenge, cooking for professional food critics but passing off the food as though it were cooked by the professional chefs.

"There are these two chefs," says wide-eyed Rebecca from Utah, referring to the judges, Chef Anne and Chef Beau. "A lady who looks like she wants to kill us, and a man who is sizing everybody up."

Poor Rebecca will later become the first contestant to break down in bitter, salty tears, a requisite ingredient of any reality show.

The "battle" between Chefs Anne and Beau isn't very convincing. After some forced smack talk, the two culinary experts bond over their poorly concealed looks of horror when the novice chefs present their first attempts at a meal that is representative of their skills in the kitchen.

And skill is a generous term, as the most promising is a dish from 44-year-old Sauvion, who dumps an entire boiled chicken, slathered in sauce, on a plate (Anne concedes the two randomly placed slices of Swiss cheese made the meat surprisingly moist). Otherwise, the contestants offer a parade of disasters including alleged chocolate pancakes that appear to have been mixed with cement, and a lump of white mush that a man named Eddie proudly calls his "signature date dish."

"This guy, he's going to be a bachelor for a long time," Beau says.

After the worst of the worst are sent home, the chefs choose the 12 most promising of the sorry lot, and they're split into teams of six to work on the second challenge. Beau takes on a Simon Cowell-with-a-Boston-accent persona, referring to one dish as "darkened broth from hell."

The stakes are fairly low -- the one who fools the food critics will get $25,000 -- and the pace is like that of any other frantic food show competition, with just a few more pots spewing steam and dishes turning a sickly shade of brown. But clearly, Food Network wants to broaden its menu -- and while the White House garden is beautiful and attainable, some people might relate even more to a regular kitchen, completely out of control.

Iron Chef America

(two hours) airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Food Network

Worst Cooks in America

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Food Network

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