Food network

When Cooking Became Cutthroat: A Brief History of the Culinary Contest

I have something to confess: there are times – especially since my pantry and fridge look a bit bare (and infinitely less inspiring) at the end of the week – when the only way to motivate myself to cook dinner instead of ordering delivery is to make cooking a game.

In fact, it’s more of a competition than a game. Inevitably, I launch into a one-woman version of “Chopped,” the Food Network competition program that has dominated the network since it first aired in 2009.

If, for some reason, you haven’t found yourself watching cable TV in an anxious runaway state from 8 p.m. to midnight at some point in the past few years, here’s an introduction to the show. Four enthusiastic chefs or home cooks from a particular background – ranging from a subset of the restaurant world to professions such as cafeteria workers and fire station cooks – are presented with a “chopped” basket “.

Inside is a set of disparate ingredients from which competing chefs are asked to make a cohesive dish. This continues for three rounds of 20 to 30 minutes, which are usually divided into appetizer, entree, and dessert categories. Contestants are judged on attributes such as flavor, presentation and how they exploit “mystery ingredients”. At the end of each round, someone is eliminated. Signal by Ted Allen signature line, “You’ve been chopped!”

When I played at home, there were a few hits, including a game on Italian-style braised pork served over rice. I put it together using a piece of frozen pork loin, cilantro, and coconut milk. There were also dishes that I would probably like not redo – as one incredibly thick soup made with leftover refried beans and pico de gallo – but all of that is better than takeout.

I admit it’s a bit ridiculous that I need the threat of an imaginary competition to get dinner on the table, but I recently figured out why it makes sense. After all, culinary competitions are an enduring mainstay of our culture, but what are the origins of cooking as a sport?

It turns out that one of the earliest recorded instances of a cooking contest took place in medieval Baghdad, more than 1,000 years before the very first episode of “Chopped” aired.

In “Annals of the Kitchen of the Caliphs“, the 10th century cookbook (originally titled “Kit̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄āb al-ṭabīkh”) which was translated by the Iraqi food historian and scholar Nawal Nasrallah, is the story of a culinary face-off between Caliph al-Maʾmūn and his brother al-Muʿtaṣim. Each had a series of companions who assisted them. al-Ma’ mūn’s companion was a cook named Ibāda who was known to have “a delightful and mischievous sense of humor”.

“The story goes that al-Ma’ mūn was in the mood for a cooking contest,” Nasrallah wrote. “He ordered meat, vegetables and the like to be brought… Ibāda noticed that al-Muʿtaṣim’s pot emitted pleasant aromas which overpowered all others, which made him jealous of him.”

Thus, in a classic case of kitchen sabotage, Ibāda provided “professional advice”, suggesting that al-Ma’ mūn add fermented sauce to his cooking pot. “Al-Muʿtaṣim did so, and soon enough foul odors came out of his pot, for which al-Muʿtaṣim rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not know that adding a corpse to a being living would spoil it?'”

Talk about a ruthless kitchen.

Years passed before al-Muʿtaṣim became caliph, the sting of this lost competition remained. He eventually exiled Ibāda, saying it wasn’t worth killing him. The next caliph restored Ibāda as royal cook for a time, before also banishing him for misdeed (the exact type of which has been lost to history), only for him to be restored again. He must have been a hell of a cook.

It’s evident that our collective thirst to see culinary excellence through a competitive lens is an enduring mainstay, from ancient Baghdad to modern cable television, with no sign of being sated any time soon.

Over time, there have been other notable cooking contests, but these contests have truly cemented themselves as a global entertainment phenomenon in the late 21st century. In 1983, the Bocuse d’Or, a biennial world chef championship, was established in Lyon, France. In 1991, the very first James Beard Foundation Award — often called the “Oscars of the Food World” — were awarded; the first recipients were Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse and Nancy Silverton.

Two years later, the same year the Food Network debuted in the United States, Japan launched “Iron Chef,” which would change the landscape of food television forever. Over the decades that followed, Food Network’s programming gradually evolved into a competition-dominated schedule. Like the Atlantic reportedthe prime-time shows with the most viewers on the network in 2000 were “Iron Chef”, “Emeril Live”, “FoodNation with Bobby Flay”, “Food Finds”, and “Good Eats”.

In 2014 they were “Food Network Star”, “Worst Cooks in America”, “Chopped Tournament”, “Cutthroat Kitchen”, and “Guy’s Grocery Games”. To date, “Chopped” has aired 635 episodes, in addition to 39 specials.

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This cultural shift is reflected off-screen. For example, earlier this week, the story of a Virginia woman who swept the cooking categories at her county fair went viral online. Ailsa Chang of NPR reported that Linda Skeens “won first, second and third place for best cookies. She also won all three awards for candy and for savory bread. In fact, she won blue ribbon for cake, pie, the brownie, the sweet bread and the best baked good.. It was strawberry caramel.

That same day, I came across a company called Culinary Fight Clubwhich is “a nationwide organization that hosts live cooking contests in 29 states” and uses the hashtag #FoodSport in its advertising.

It’s evident that our collective thirst to see culinary excellence through a competitive lens is an enduring mainstay, from ancient Baghdad to modern cable television, with no sign of being sated any time soon.

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at the intersection of food and television