It’s well documented that food TV long ago morphed from instructional tutorials offered by charismatic chefs guiding viewers in the finer points of omelette-making or chicken deboning into the entertainment offered by today’s competition-cooking shows. The Food Network is no longer dominated by chefs soothingly stirring pots, and food programming elsewhere is chef-as-gladiator throw-downs such as ABC’s “Family Food Fight,” Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
But “Dishmantled” surely represents something — if not what misty-eyed purists who long for the good old days of Julia and Jacques might call a new low, then at least a complete rejection of whatever DNA might have remained in the genre of those earlier cooking programs even after years of being bred to near-extinction.
Its host, Tituss Burgess of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” fame, makes no pretense of culinary knowledge, though he exudes gobs of enthusiasm. Julia might have greeted viewers with a cheery “Bon Appétit!” and Emeril Legasse might have whipped up his studio audience with every “Bam!” but all that seems tame in comparison to Burgess’s signature line: “Y’all ready to watch me blow some [stuff] up?”
Contestants don’t even feign at operating under the high stakes that define many other cooking shows, where the drama gets amped up by the ways in which participants plan to use their winnings. Will they get the $10,000 to start their own restaurant or go home, empty-handed and shamed?
Of her plans for the coveted prize money, one contestant boasts, “I’m going to buy tickets to Celine Dion, duh.”
Emily Contois, a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa and author of the forthcoming “Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture,” notes that the show has more in common with “Nailed It” than other, more traditional, predecessors. That Netflix show, inspired by the trend of social media users failing spectacularly as they attempt to replicate elaborate cakes, features nonprofessionals.
“Instead of expertise and competence … it’s a celebration of amateurism,” Contois says. The emphasis on “Dishmantled” seems to be the antics of Burgess and the judges, she notes, who are often comedians and entertainers.
In one episode, Burgess is joined by his “Kimmy Schmidt” co-star, actress Jane Krakowski. “I don’t know if this is my favorite cooking show or my sexual fantasies come true,” Krakowski purrs as the food starts flying. In another, asked whether she would debase herself for $5,000, like the contestants were doing as they staggered around, covered in mush and licking surfaces, stand-up comic/guest host Michelle Buteau responded with a zing: “You should have seen what I did for curly fries in college!”
“They seem to be more of the draw than the chefs,” Contois says.
Allen Salkin, a journalist and the author of “From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network,” says early cooking competition shows, such as “Iron Chef,” might have offered some edification. But those days, he says, are long gone. “At some point, they gave up all pretense of trying to educate people.”
And he wonders whether “Dishmantled,” with all its reveling in excess, has come along at the wrong moment, though it was conceived of and filmed long before the coronavirus outbreak led to empty grocery shelves and lost paychecks. “Right now, we want to know how do we avoid food waste, how can we stretch things further,” Salkin says. “Not watching food being shot onto a studio floor, to be mopped up by slop-bucket interns.” (Such a job did actually exist at the Food Network, he says, back when the sinks on set weren’t real, and actually emptied into receptacles below.)
He notes that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were followed by a rise in popularity on the Food Network of less cheffy, approachable homestyle cooks like Rachael Ray and “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond as viewers sought solace. Our similarly traumatic times might call for similarly soothing programming, he says.
Still, competition shows clearly have taken hold, and not just because they might be cheaper to produce than other kinds of programming. Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University, notes that their success lies in their primal appeal. “The reason competition shows are such naturals, dramaturgically, it’s that they have the built-in arc of a beginning, a middle and an end,” he says. “And then somebody wins. You see this in almost every drama — but in these shows, it’s stripped down to the basics.”
“Dishmantled” might just be the ultimate realization of the long-arcing trend of competition dominating our entertainment. It embraces a premise that you’re not supposed to learn anything here, just like you don’t watch “Grey’s Anatomy” to glean the steps to performing an appendectomy. Today’s media stratification and the proliferation of streaming shows means there’s something for everyone, somewhere. If someone wants high-end food content, there are shows such as “Mind of a Chef” and “Ugly Delicious.” If they want to know how to debone a chicken, they can turn to a thousand YouTube tutorials.
To Contois, the question isn’t whether “Dishmantled” teaches viewers anything about food — it’s whether that even matters. “Is this even really food TV?” she wonders. “Here, food is just the prop.”
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