Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elementary Suggestions for "Cutthroat Kitchen"

In the wake of the sad demise of "Sweet Genius" (I presume someone lawyered up after Chef Ron dropped one of their relatives into the pirahna tank for serving him NutraSweet, and he's gone into hiding), my new favorite cooking competition show is "Cutthroat Kitchen". It has the perfect deranged glee for someone of my dubious moral character; for those who haven't seen it, it takes the basic structure of "Chopped" (three rounds of competition, eliminating the worst chef each round) and adds the twist that chefs can sacrifice some of their potential winnings to sabotage the other contestants, during an auction-style preliminary before each round. The sabotages are designed by Alton Brown, the host of the show, and range from the irritating (take away your opponent's protein/starch, force your opponent to use a non-standard mixing vessel/heat source/tools) to the dementedly inspired (force your opponent to get all their ingredients for a birthday cake by opening gift-wrapped boxes, make your opponent cook breakfast in bed while lying in an actual bed, or the infamous "tiny kitchen" sabotage, which is pretty much what it sounds like).

The thing I like about this show, apart from the obvious humor value in watching someone try to cook while wearing a Chinese finger trap, is that there's game strategy involved on top of the cooking skills. A well-timed sabotage can derail even the best chef, and it's a lot of fun watching people try to figure out when to bid and when to risk getting stuck with something that can make their task a lot harder. (Oh, and it's also fun to watch the judges tasting each dish, since one of the rules is that the contestant can't tell the judge what they had to deal with. There are a lot of culinary buzzwords thrown around to disguise the fact that they had to make a sandwich with soggy bread and no meat.)

But that said, I think that some people could use a few tips. So, despite the fact that the crossover audience between "my blog" and "Cutthroat Kitchen contestants" is probably less than zero, here are my suggestions!

1. Remember that there are no winners in Rounds One and Two. "Cutthroat Kitchen", like "Chopped", is an elimination-based game. You aren't trying to make the best dish; you're trying to avoid making the worst dish. This is important in the first two rounds, where you have more than one person you can get in front of. Keep this in mind when bidding on and dishing out sabotages--a sabotage that affects two or three chefs isn't as big of a deal, because even if you get it, you're not any worse off than one or two other people. Likewise, as tempting as it is to stick it to the one person who's sabotage-free and getting an easy ride through to the next round, it's more important to look for the person who's already in the most trouble and hand them that metaphorical anchor. Your goal is to make one other person's task impossible, not to make everyone but yours hard.

2. Don't Splash Out Early If You Can Avoid It. One of the biggest factors that affects the final round is how much money is left on the table going into it. There are usually fewer sabotages at the end, but they tend to be game-changers, and having enough of a cash advantage that you can guarantee you won't get stuck with them is a pretty big deal. That means not shelling out ten grand in the first round for a sabotage, even if it's a really devastating one. Obviously, there are times you will have to break that rule--if a sabotage is a clear ticket to elimination, you're better off bidding on it in Round One than handing back all your money to Alton--but you really want to keep your powder dry for the final round if at all possible. (Especially because if the other person doesn't follow this rule, you'll be able to pick up the sabotages for cheap at the end, because they won't have the cash to gainsay you.)

3. Don't Get Cute. There is one thing I see on this show that always sends a chill of dread into the pit of my stomach (or a thrill up my spine, if it's a particularly irritating chef). It's when they decide to get "creative". The thing is, creativity is something that is forced on you by this show. The dishes are all traditional favorites with an obvious Platonic ideal form, and judges looking for that ideal. Every deviation is something they're marking off, and a lot of contestants have to deviate due to the sabotages. So given that, do not--and I mean do NOT--try to do your own personal "twist" on whatever the dish is. Don't decide to put blue cheese on your fish sandwich because it has such a unique flavor profile. Don't decide to splash cognac into your beef stroganoff because it's a variation on the dish that you champion at every opportunity. In short, do not mess around with a perfectly good recipe just because you want to be creative, because the judge is not looking for any more creativity than is absolutely necessitated by the format of the show.

4. Don't Panic In the Pantry. The other thing that always sends dread/thrills, delete where applicable, is watching someone run out of the pantry and say, "And then I realized I forgot the (sugar/mustard/pickles/salt/eggs/baking soda/other basic-but-essential ingredient)." Every time it happens, it's like those contestants gave their opponents a free sabotage good for them only. Keep the most important ingredients foremost in your head and make sure you get every single one. (And then, as Alton himself says, grab some sugar, flour and eggs, on the grounds that you can always make effective use of them.)

Keep all these things in mind...oh, and know how to cook and stuff...and you have a better chance of walking away a winner!

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