A Sunday night staple in my house is the Food Network show “Worst Cooks in America,” which premiered in 2010 and is now in its 21st season, including a handful that have starred B-level celebrities. On Worst Cooks, a dozen or so contestants who start out with few if any cooking skills go through a series of challenges in a culinary “boot camp” that’s led by two professional chefs. Each week, a pair of contestants are eliminated until the final two compete for a cash prize by cooking a “restaurant-quality” meal for a panel of judges.
Like many reality shows, “Worst Cooks” casts some oddball characters and emphasizes their personality quirks as they proceed to set pans on fire, cut themselves – sometimes repeatedly – while chopping vegetables, and recoil at having to break down whole chickens or handle live lobster. But the show separates itself from the pack by operating with a surprising amount of education, entertainment, and just plain heart that has kept me watching for over a decade.
On this week’s episode, Chefs Anne Burrell, a Food Network personality who has starred on every season of Worst Cooks, and Carla Hall, who previously appeared on two seasons of “Top Chef” as well as a talk show called “The Chew,” led the recruits through a series of baking and cooking challenges. First, the contestants had to mimic the decorations on a layer cake, following a demonstration by Zac Young, a well-regarded pastry chef. Then, after Burrell and Hall show them how to bake cupcakes, they create their own versions with creative flavor combinations.
While some contestants struggle with the challenge – one uses powdered sugar instead of flour in his batter and has to start over – another works with Hall, who supportively helps her develop a version of carrot cake and gives just enough information to make the at-home viewer think they can do it too. Meanwhile, on-screen graphics punctuate certain moments with creative animations and sound effects like a talking unicorn or a salt shaker that buzzes like a fly, providing both entertainment and whimsy. (Whoever at Food Network is responsible for these graphics definitely deserves a raise.)
During the final segment, the contestants make their own pasta and sauce, and on-screen graphics provide educational tidbits about the different shapes Burrell and Hall demonstrate. And throughout this episode and the entire series, both chefs return to cooking mantras that have become imprinted in my brain over the years. Burrell often emphasizes the proper way to hold a knife, and the importance of chopping vegetables consistently for even cooking, by cutting them into “slices, sticks, dices.” She shows the contestants how to “blanch and shock” broccoli, or when cooking a sauce, that you need to “bring to boil, reduce to simmer.” And she repeats “brown food tastes good” so often that it’s hard not to think of that phrase whenever I’m searing a piece of meat. (The show also provides a surprising number of ideas for good dishes. I can’t tell you how often I’ve cooked a meal based on what I’ve seen on a given week’s episode.)
While the show sprinkles in culinary education and entertainment throughout each hour, yet another reason to watch “Worst Cooks” is to see how the contestants gain confidence in the kitchen as they transform from “culinary zeroes to kitchen heroes.”
This week, a teacher named Tiffany struggled with her dish and didn’t get to continue in the competition, but she says, with a tear in her eye, “I had the worst pasta dish, but I’m heading home with my head held high.” Another eliminated contestant, a model named McKayla, says proudly, “I’ve learned more here than I ever thought I would. I will absolutely continue to cook … and I’m making lobster, because I know how to cook it now.”
While these contestants might still be among the worst cooks in America, their stories make it seem likely that they will no longer poison their loved ones with undercooked chicken or disgust them with dishes like bologna quesadilla. And the home viewer, while being entertained and informed, might just also be inspired to get up off the couch and start making dinner.
What I Ate: Jambalaya with chicken, shrimp, and sausage