Kill Your Television: Served Whole

  • By Katy St. Clair
  • Wed Oct 30th, 2013 4:00am
  • ArtCulture

I remember that first moment when I finally grasped the profundity of Jim Varney's “Ernest” character: I, you, and the collective “we” are Vern. Whenever he said, “KnowwhatImeanVern?” he was talking to me/you/we. I was Vern, man! Ergo I had a big part in Ernest Scared Stupid. (Note to self: Update LinkedIn profile.)

Ninety percent of cooking shows are the same. The host tootles around the kitchen whipping up dinner and talks directly to the camera. Anyone who's watched The Next Food Network Star knows that producers are looking for someone who can make everyone in America feel like Vern. We are lonely, hungry, and in need of a new way to prepare beef stroganoff in under an hour, whether we will ever actually cook it or not.

It's no surprise then that the varieties of performance within the dining genre have exploded — they don't call it “food porn” for nothing. But with so many to choose from, does the world need another cooking show? Decidedly not, but still I keep being drawn to Knife Fight, a new show on the Esquire Network that combines Chopped with a Roman coliseum death match. Instead of gladiators and lions, Knife Fight has L.A. hipsters and foie gras, and the two chefs battle it out in front of an intimate but rowdy crowd.

The show takes place after hours at Top Chef winner Ilan Hall's downtown L.A. restaurant, The Gorbals. As the story goes, he used to host impromptu chef cook-offs among friends, and Drew Barrymore's production company liked the idea so much that it turned it into a show. Like Chopped, the pair of chefs is given disparate ingredients and a limited time frame to prepare two or three dishes. Each episode features Hall as a judge, plus two other guest judges, often local food writers or actors. Then there's the peanut gallery, which consists of fabulously hip people holding drinks, laughing, and whooping it up like they were at a house party.

It became immediately apparent that this show was breaking the cardinal Vern Rule. Hall speaks to the camera briefly in the beginning before he takes us to meet the contestants at their restaurants, but after that, you are an outsider looking in, a street urchin with your face pressed up against a warmly glowing window. The chefs are cooler than you, more talented that you, and you will never be invited to the party everyone is having. Where's the heart? I asked myself. Why should I care which one of these guys wins the coveted Meat Cleaver of Victory? Yet I continued to watch. And I still continue to watch. And slowly, surely, I started to feel included. Probably because I have developed a raging crush on Ilan Hall.

In all fairness, I'm sure the producers of Knife Fight don't care what a female viewer thinks anyway, since this is one of the shows on the new network Esquire TV, which is apparently a metro/homosexual's answer to Spike. It's a station for men who mostly like traveling and cooking, apparently, though a new show has cropped up that's about men's fashion. There's no Guy Fieri here, unless he wants to change his name to Gilles and be less, well, X-treeeme.

Maybe men watch cooking shows differently than women? Maybe they see a room full of gorgeous women downing microbrews and cheering on the chefs and it feeds whatever delusions they have about themselves. If that's the case, then Knife Fight is pure genius. It combines hand-to-hand cooking combat with every man's playboy fantasy.

Even though I'm not Vern here, I like this show, which is a testament to either the higher-than-average levels of testosterone I have in my system or to Drew Barrymore's influence. Over the last few weeks it has already progressed a bit. For example, instead of the judges talking among themselves before deciding, they now talk face to face with the contestants and give feedback. Still, if Knife Fight wants to sustain its audience, it will need to expand its parameters. Even Chopped learned this lesson by having “theme” shows and all-star competitions, but Chopped also has a ton of addictive pathos. It's the Queen For a Day of food shows, with sweetie-pie chefs who just want to win that 10 grand so they can see their dying grandmother in France one more time, or the single mom who wants to take her daughter with cerebral palsy to Disneyland. On Knife Fight, we really don't know much about the chefs beyond the restaurants they work for. One pair leaves and two more take their place on the next episode. Same with the judges. Male/female viewership aside, what's the point of a food show without connection? KnowwhatImeanVern?

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