Food Fighters: Tuesdays at 8 Eastern on NBC
The competition genre has seemingly been on it’s last legs for a while as the genre (Voice aside) has struggled to produce new hits. The end result is that reality hours for the most part have been down across the board, except at the peacock, whose newfound respectability (unfortunately, much to my chagrin, I can’t put quotation marks around respectability anymore) has a summer schedule jam-packed with as much unscripted TV as possible (Last Comic Standing, America’s Got Talent, and American Ninja Warrior being just some of NBC’s recent summer offerings). They add to this stable of competition television with Tuesday offering Food Fighters.
Food Fighters, at it’s core is like Bobby Flay’s Throwdown on steroids. One contestant, with their signature dishes (everyone’s got one – they typically get busted out for dinner parties and the like) must take on not one celebrity chef, but five whom attempt to knock the contestant off their culinary pedestal. The show stars Adam Richman (of misguided thinspiration scandal fame as well as Man vs. Food) as the host, while the celebrity chef pool features a mixture of familiar Food Network stars (Duff Goldman, Cat Cora), brand ambassadors (Lorena Garcia), and new faces (Jet Tila, G. Garvin, Elizabeth Falkner).
The first thing I noticed while watching Food Fighters was the grandiosity. The kitchen area is two tiered and sweeping, the show doesn’t spare it’s prize budget (you’re looking at a $100,000 top prize that seems attainable, but at the same time it’s tough to walk away with less than $5,000 – $10,000). While a lot of cooking shows have tried to give this sort of vibe in the past – this show is truly the closest an American company has gotten to copying Kitchen Stadium from the Japanese Iron Chef, with it’s decadent two tier kitchen, tons of lights and almost game show like appearance.
This grandiosity, thankfully, extends out to the chefs, who play up generally affable villains in the pro-wrestling mold. This include Kevin Belton, a Cajun chef with a knack for witty banter and playing to the crowd, and Marcel Vigneron, a former Top Chef competitor who has a knack for unorthodox cooking methods. It’s Garcia, however, who steals the show by putting on balancing act unlike any other with some impressive knife work and nimbly sashaying around Richman when he gets in the way during a mid showdown interview. Surprisingly subdued amidst the largeness of this show is Richman himself, who despite operating as host, commentator, and interviewer manages to fill a background role without taking the spotlight away from the competitors.
Of course, none of this grandiosity means a thing without a sound format, and Food Fighters comes through in that regard. Seeing how it’s ultimately the battle between home cook and celebrity chef, the show relies on two key twists to balance the tables. First and foremost, in a twist taken from Throwdown, the judges are average citizens, who are put to a blind taste test. Secondly, however, is the strategic element of Food Fighters, where the home chef picks which chef challenges which recipe, meaning that seafood experts could be forced to bake, while Italian cuisine maestros can be pushed into making tacos.
There are, however, a few mild quibbles. First and foremost, the five course setup gets slightly monotonous at points, even if the timers were often incredibly short (all of the battles ran between 15 and 25 minutes in length). The judging segments also seemed fairly weak, with the judges often restating the obvious, which makes some of the decisions feel downright puzzling when Richman announces them. Finally, the show only bothers to promote the end-bosses of any given show, which is a true shame, since it slightly misleads it’s audience.
The Final Verdict: It doesn’t necessarily add a ton to a genre that’s pretty well played out (both food competitions and competition style network shows), but Food Fighters won me over by coming way closer to the pinnacle of the genre than most of the cooking shows out there and generally sidestepping most of the melodramatics and ridiculous gimmicks that are a staple of the format. It’s downfall, however comes in it’s high variance, like many game shows, there will be some curbstomp level showdowns (one chef used egg roll wrap for his tacos because he “couldn’t find the tortillas” and got soundly whumped 5-0) to go with some truly amazing battles (Garcia’s showdown in particular, even the result is a headscratcher). Check it out if you get the chance, even if it’s the sort of show that will likely work better catching the odd battle or two on Hulu.