How "Reality" TV Cooking Shows Get It Wrong

Real professional kitchens are run with dignity and order, not insults and curses

Jacques Pépin
The best kitchens are well organized, with a contented, dedicated, hard-working staff.

Jacques Pépin, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a celebrated chef, cooking teacher, cookbook author and television personality, dean of special programs at the International Culinary Center, and winner of a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. His most recent book is New Complete Techniques.

I’ve been a chef for nearly 60 years. I love and respect my trade, and I still love to cook, mostly with other chef friends and my family. It is hard work to be behind the stove 16 hours a day in a restaurant kitchen, and the pressures at mealtime can be unbearable. Sometimes in those stressful conditions, hot tempers flare up and voices are raised. Conventionally, the situation abates as soon as mealtime is over, and more often than not ends in a friendly discussion over a glass of wine or a beer. As an apprentice, I was kicked in the rear end a few times, but it was tough love more than nastiness. These are the conditions of the trade, and anyone who works in a restaurant is well aware of them.

In the last few years, there have been a flurry of new TV cooking shows, so-called “reality” shows, that portray the restaurant kitchen in a chaotic and negative light, and I believe it is a disservice to our trade and to young people who want to go into this business. The worst offenders insult and humiliate their crew, cursing and swearing, with every other word a bleeped expletive. The crew, often unkempt and untidy, look at the chef defiantly and seem to be terrorized and belligerent at the same time.

The process of cooking, the process of combining ingredients together to create a dish, is never seen on these shows.

The process of cooking, the process of combining ingredients together to create a dish, is never seen on these shows. Nor is the process of tasting, adding an ingredient, then tasting again and commenting ever shown. Dishes appear from somewhere, and the tasting is only done by the dictator chef at the end of the show, and only in the context of disagreeing, conflicting, or contesting the taste, with the goal of mortifying his cooks, not helping them. This approach is certainly not conducive to creating good-tasting dishes.

I have asked friends many times, “What are the best fundamental dishes of your life?” Invariably, their response goes back to food prepared by a mother, a grandmother, a father, an aunt, or some other relative or friend. A main ingredient of those preparations is the love with which they are prepared. Those early tastes remain with you for the rest of your life. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang said that patriotism is nothing more than the love of dishes you had as a child. Certainly, in times of stress you go back to the essential dishes of your youth. As those young soldiers in Afghanistan would certainly agree, Mom’s apple pie, Boston baked beans, or a lobster roll are among the dishes they crave or dream about. In Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, the book’s main protagonist, Dr. Urbino, doesn’t know anything about cooking, but when he eats and entertains in his home, he equates the goodness of the food with how much love was put into the dish. He would reject a dish, saying, “this food was cooked without love.” It is a criticism that is closer to the truth than most people realize.

Julia Child used to say that you have to be happy when you cook for the food to be good, and you also have to be happy in the eating and sharing of the food with family and friends. Otherwise the gastric juices will not do their job and you won’t digest the food properly. I agree with her assessment. It is impossible to enjoy food when you're angry and tense.

In these reality shows, the confrontation and the bitter drama are not conducive to producing good food. There is disarray and pandemonium in these kitchens, as well as in the dining rooms. No one seems to agree on anything, and there are ongoing clashes between the employees, without much evidence of what makes a kitchen work. For the good of his or her restaurant, the chef should be a role model, an educator who probes and advises his cooks, rather than embarrasses them publicly. A good kitchen is quiet most of the time. It is disciplined, well structured, and clean. People who cook there are dedicated and work together. Teamwork is extremely important, as all parts of the kitchen have to work on many of the same dishes. This requires them to work as one unit, like in a symphony when all the parts come together at the end. It is not exciting or dramatic enough for TV.

The so-called “reality” cooking shows are, if anything, totally unreal. A real, well-run professional kitchen has dignity and order. If cameras went into Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, they would see a kitchen that is well organized, with a contented, dedicated, hard-working staff. The cruel rivalry and conflict depicted in Hell’s Kitchen may be good for ratings, but it is unjust to dedicated cooks and unfair to the trade. In my opinion, nothing good enough to eat can be concocted under such conditions. I’m going back to my mother’s leek and potato soup and apple galette.


Be a Part of the Conversation

Have something to say?
Add a comment (or see what others think).

Comments 22
4.941175
Ratings34


Like this story? Get updates by email, facebook and twitter
Get daily food and wine coverage


Latest from The Daily Meal

The Daily Meal Video Network
Strawberry Brie Grilled Cheese

22 Comments

tdm-35-icon.png

Once upon a time, the Food Network showed how to cook food. I enjoyed that immensely, and learned a lot (my favourite show was "Cook like a Chef"). Then it became all reality-TV based competitions. It was cute, back when Iron Chef (the original Japanese show) was the only one, but when all the TV becomes about competitions, travelling shows that pit one place against another... it's no longer about food. It's about egos and one-upmanship. So I stopped my cable subscription.

tdm-35-icon.png

D'accord, Chef Pepin. Too many Americans are hooked on so-called reality shows which, actually, are not at all real. Unfortunately, chefs like Ramsay are wrangled into doing things they probably abhor. I much prefer watching PBS cooking shows (except for Bastianich who is annoying).

tdm-35-icon.png

I completely agree with this statement 100%. I've watched these reality shows and end up leaving the room about a half an hour in. I am very disappointed in how these how these cooking shows focus on the negative rather than the food itself. We are more concerned with the drama. As well with many shows, I've learned is that many fights and arguments are created by the producers to keep their ratings up every week. Drama makes for good television. So shows like Hell's kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares continue to get good ratings is solely because of Ramsey's temper. Remember good drama equals good television. I think food reality shows need to put the focus back in good cooking rather than in drama.

tdm-35-icon.png

I'm not a professional cook, I'm a mom who cooks for my children and I always thought we pass our energy to the food. If you're happy and content the food will be delicious and if you cook without love, will not have the same taste. Jacques Pepin is a very wise man, because he sense that and that's why he is so sucessful.

tdm-35-icon.png

Jacques Pepin, your words equate to the Pastry Kitchen as well..I am disgusted with the reality baking/decorating shows on TV..not even close to how a professional Pastry kitchen is run.

tdm-35-icon.png

I love Chef Pepin and agree 100%. Pepin's PBS shows are learning experiences taught effortlessly by a master.

tdm-35-icon.png

American television, about the worst in the world these days. The "reality shows", bottom barrel..And then people wonder what in earth may possess a 15 y-o to start shooting classmates...

tdm-35-icon.png

If anybody likes the competition layout of masterchef but hates the way the show is run I HIGHLY recommend Masterchef Austrailia, may be a bit tricky to find in the US but very well worth it if you can. All Around GREAT show.

tdm-35-icon.png

Masterchef in any form is a disgrace to out industry. Get real!

tdm-35-icon.png

Well said! Thank you.

tdm-35-icon.png

Pepin for President!

tdm-35-icon.png

In light of Jacques Pepin's most recent article, I thought it would be appropriate to repost a piece that I wrote for Culinary Cues in April. I couldn't agree more with Jacques. It is time for the media to reflect the honor of working in a professional kitchen.
<a href="http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-shows/" title="http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-shows/">http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-...</a>

tdm-35-icon.png

In light of Jacques Pepin's most recent article, I thought it would be appropriate to repost a piece that I wrote for Culinary Cues in April. I couldn't agree more with Jacques. It is time for the media to reflect the honor of working in a professional kitchen.
<a href="http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-shows/" title="http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-shows/">http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/06/enough-with-inaccurate-tv-food-...</a>

tdm-35-icon.png

I think pepin (I love him) got it wrong. I believe most viewers realize the difference between hell's tv kitchen and a real restaurant. they are very different planets.

tdm-35-icon.png

Unfortunately, you're wrong. I had the misfortune of working for a chef who was quite abusive. The guests would laugh, saying they loved the Ramsey-like experience.

tdm-35-icon.png

It's just one of the many shows all getting top ratings. Add in over half of the Food Networks line up into this category also. Which is why I prefer PBS cooking shows.

tdm-35-icon.png

D'accord. Merci Chef.

tdm-35-icon.png

Thank you so much for expertly summing up how a lot of us regular people feel. We feed people, people we love. We aren't spoiled "professional" chefs who see cooking as some sort of perverse competition. i truly do not believe that Americans demand this sort of immature, churlish behavior that we see on reality shows. I feel kind of dispirited after I watch a show like Master Chefs. I feel really good and inspired after I watch Mr. Pepin's show. I learned confidence from you and Julia Child. I also learned it is a wonderful feeling to share my knowledge and experience with those cooks just starting out. It's a rule in our house that the happiest person makes the salad because salad made by an angry person comes out tasting funny. the person in the worst mood makes the bread. We always end up with really good salad and wonderful bread.

tdm-35-icon.png

Yes, chef!

tdm-35-icon.png

Fantastic piece!

tdm-35-icon.png

Be the first to Comment...

tdm-35-icon.png

It is unfortunate that the train wreck that is Hell's Kitchen is perpetuated to get ratings--the highest in the category by far. If you've seen Chef Ramsay's U.K. shows, he is not the abusive leader of questionable talent that American producers ask him to represent, and encourage the contestants to deliver disparaging sound bites the viewers are looking for. The next clue is that these "professional" cheftestants can't make a simple risotto or cook a basic piece of fish or chicken. The lamentable part is not that it shows an unrealistic, unharmonious kitchen, but that what it depicts is what gets ratings in the U.S. It’s easy enough for anyone with standards to turn the channel to the quality reality food shows.

Add a Comment

Upload a picture of yourself no larger than 3MB, please see Terms for details
CAPTCHA
Please answer this Captcha to prove you are human
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
CAPTCHA
Please answer this Captcha to prove you are human