What’s Cookin’?

Of all the birthday party possibilities 15-year-old Grace Dant might have asked for — a sleepover, Justin Bieber concert, laser tag or bowling — she chose to have a Chopped party, a take on Food Network’s popular show of the same name.

Grace’s mom, Joanne, gathered together a bunch of disparate ingredients. All fans, the teens immediately got into the groove.

If you’re thinking this is unusual, you’d be wrong. Chopped parties have become de rigueur these days. Pre-teens, teens and even adults all over the country are jumping into the frying pan, sharing ideas on blogs and message boards. There are Pinterest pages devoted to Chopped parties. Companies are hosting such events under the guise of corporate team-building exercises.

Food these days has taken center stage in people’s lives — and on their screens. And of the bumper crop of shows, from instructional to travel to reality, no sub-genre has been hotter than cooking competition shows.

Today, about two dozen series pit professional chefs, amateur cooks and celebrities against one another to wear the top toque — and that’s just on the cable dial.

And more such shows are launching all the time. MTV will debut House of Food on March 31 and TNT will launch On the Menu with Ty Pennington later this year.

Last month, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo kick-started Top Chef Estrellas, a reworked and revamped version of Bravo’s Top Chef featuring telenovela stars competing in the kitchen.

Food Network in April is launching Kitchen Casino, in which chef participants aim to out-cook and outsmart each other during three casino-themed challenges — slots, poker and roulette — for a chance to win cash. Most recently, the fledgling Esquire Network launched Knife Fight to much fanfare.


“It’s just great TV storytelling with a beginning, middle and end,” Bob Tuschman, Food Network’s general manager/senior vice president, said. “There is colorful creative, strategy, inspiration and information. Viewers can be inspired and even take away tips and recipes. Who knew you could melt down gummy bears to make a raspberry sauce, as shown on an episode of Chopped?”

Bravo’s Top Chef, and its various spinoffs and specials, helped push the network to higher viewership levels last year, executives said. During its latest season, which ended Feb. 5, Bravo was the No. 5-ranked cable network in its time period, Wednesdays from 10-11 p.m. ET, among viewers 18-49 and No. 4 among 25-to-54-year-olds, according to Nielsen live-plus-seven-day data between Oct. 2, 2013 and Feb. 5. Top Chef’s season-closing episode on Feb. 5 drew a season high 2.6 million total viewers, according to Bravo statistics.

The series has seen its ups and downs in the ratings, though. Season 5 in 2008 was the show’s highest-rated campaign, with 2.7 million viewers. The numbers have declined since then.

The Top Chef franchise has spawned four spinoffs, several specials and 12 international versions. Advertisers have been loyal to the show from the beginning — Toyota has been a leading sponsor since its 2006 debut. It’s the longest running autoadvertising sponsorship on cable, according to the company.

Viewers can purchase all kinds of Top Chef gear, from T-shirts to formal culinary apparel to kitchen gadgets and cookbooks. A Top Chef computer game released by Brighter Minds challenges players to create the best dish from items in a virtual pantry.

The network is feverishly wooing fans: Bravo and Celebrity Cruises teamed last year to bring Top Chef fans together with some of their favorite “cheftestants” for a seafaring gastronomic bacchanalia. It was so successful that Celebrity cut an exclusive licensing deal to off er four cruises beginning this summer.

More spinoffs are also in the works. Bravo has green-lighted Top Chef Duels, in which two of the biggest, boldest and most talked-about personalities from past seasons of Top Chef and Top Chef Masters face off head-to-head in three rounds of extreme culinary challenges.

Bravo is also in development on a new show called Best New Restaurant (working title). The show, modeled after the hit U.K. series Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, is from executive producer (and notoriously salty cooking-show host) Gordon Ramsay. The show will test 16 restaurants around the country, representing all variety of cuisines.

Bravo executive vice president of programming strategy and acquisitions Jerry Leo likened the proliferation of cooking competition shows to that of singing competitions on broadcast TV.

Fox’s American Idol, which retooled itself amid falling ratings last season, and NBC’s The Voice are examples of how multiple shows in same genre can thrive, he said. Indeed, The Voice has been a ratings winner for the Peacock Network since its 2011 launch. Idol, which has a new set and new timeslot this year, has seen its ratings stagnate in the last few years, but remains in the broadcast top 10 after 13 seasons.


Cooking shows are like ingredients — only the freshest will win fans. Last season, the producers at Magical Elves added a television monitor to the chef’s kitchen on Top Chef so contestants could see and hear how the judges responded to them and their dishes, adding an element of tension and suspense to the show this past season.

Top Chef is filmed in exotic places to pique interest season after season. And while the show and its producers maintain the series is about food — not the chefs creating it — Top Chef has lured some of the country’s most well-respected and rewarded chefs in the country during its last 11 seasons.

That doesn’t mean the folks at Bravo and Magical Elves are completely resistant to the notion of expanding the Top Chef brand with celebrities. Top Chef Estrellas, which launched on Telemundo on Feb. 16, features telenovela stars participating in all kinds of hijinks in the kitchen.

Dan Cutforth, executive producer of Top Chef and co-founder of production house Magical Elves, said bringing celebrities into the Top Chef kitchen has been discussed in the past and dismissed in favor of real chefs with real culinary chops. Among the chefs who have appeared on the show over years: Nicholas Elmi (winner, season 11), whose Laurel in Philadelphia this year was named semifi nalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant; Stephanie Izzard (winner, season 4), who won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes for her restaurant, Girl & the Goat; and Michael Voltaggio (winner, season 6), who was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2013.

Viewers are drawn to the best characters in the duels, and how they react. Tyler Wiard, who competed in season 10 and is now executive chef and culinary director for Elway’s Restaurant Group in Denver, likened the process to an interrogation of sorts.

“I think it’s to see if you can handle the pressure, because there is plenty of it,” Wiard said. “I didn’t do as well as I would have hoped. But I am a better father, husband, person and chef after the experience. I think about food differently now.”

Lee Clayton Roper — a former cable executive who has written a best-selling cookbook, teaches cooking classes and is now putting together her own show for Denver’s local PBS station — likes that aspect of cooking-competition shows.

“Seven out of 10 times something goes wrong in the kitchen and they have to fix the problem,” she said. “That happens in the real world, too. No matter how good you are, there’s going to be times when something doesn’t go as planned. How these chefs work under pressure and how they stay on brand are good things to learn and know.”


But despite their growing numbers and relatively strong ratings, there are a few signs the cooking competition genre might be cooling off just a bit. Food Network enjoyed its best-ever ratings year in 2012, due mostly to its food competition-themed shows (the network currently has 18 cooking competition shows on its lineup), notching a nightly average of 1.1 million viewers for a 0.6 rating among adults 25-54. The totals put the network among the top 10 cable networks for the fourth year in a row.

Ratings, though, slipped 7% last year, according to Nielsen data. The drop was even bigger among the coveted 18-49 crowd, to 0.492, down 12% from 2012 totals. As of March 9, Food Network ranked No. 18 in primetime averaging 1.050 million viewers, according to Turner Broadcasting System research from Nielsen data.

Nonetheless, MTV, Esquire Network and other programmers are turning up the heat on new shows. MTV’s House of Food is designed to be a farm team for chefs in the field. A cross between Top Chef and The Real World, it features seven young, amateur chefs with no formal training all living in the same house in Los Angeles.

House of Food’s winner will serve as an apprentice for one of the show’s three chef judges. But network executives are also hoping to attract younger viewers who are eager to connect with the millennial chef wannabes.

MTV’s new show is really more about the characters than it is about the food, Tony DiBari, senior vice president of series development for MTV, conceded. But that doesn’t mean viewers aren’t going to learn something about food along the way.

“We knew we wanted to be in the food space,” DiBari said. “Food is important for the millennial audience. It’s a big part of their lives. They love shows with characters, so we decided to combine the two.”


Food is something everyone can relate to, added Jenny Daly, executive producer of House of Food and founder of T Group Productions, which produces several reality shows, including Mystery Diners and Private Chefs of Beverly Hills for Food Network.

“Food has become a popular expression of individuality and self-expression and that is appealing to millennials,” Daly said. “By its nature, House of Food is about relationships, but food is why they’re all together in one place. Viewers will have the opportunity to watch them hone their skills and witness their progression as chefs.”

Foodie blogs and forums have slammed Food Network’s growing emphasis on cooking competition shows over more pure cooking how-to series, but Tuschman said the competition shows have a strong attraction for TV viewers and he doesn’t see the genre reaching a saturation point any time soon.

Tuschman noted that there are myriad ways to incorporate food and how-to instruction with competition, citing Halloween Wars, where competitors strive to carve the most creative and intricate pumpkins and Guy’s Grocery Games, which pits chefs purchasing products in the grocery store against each other. Viewers can glean tips on buying the best products at the best times.

That’s the kind of thing Roper likes to take away from cooking-competition shows. She often uses what she learns from such programs in her classes, as well as her own kitchen.

“I’m a foodie, so these shows are entertaining. But I also glean current trends including ingredients, flavor profiles and presentation strategies among other things,” Roper said. “I like to see what’s being put in those Chopped baskets. They’re a great way to mix/match ingredients.”

Roper once replicated the Chopped concept during an executive team-building event. Each team was presented with a bunch of items on a table and each team had to create something from those ingredients. It was highly successful, she said.

Dant’s Chopped birthday party had a similar outcome.

“Grace has always loved Chopped and always wants to have some sort of competition/ game at her birthday parties,” Grace’s mom, Joanne Dant, who owns an independent public-relations firm, said. “I got basket ingredients that were kind of unusual, but nothing too crazy. Like the appetizer basket was SPAM, avocado, Cheetos and bacon soda.

“I had my sister and a friend over to help judge, or taste, and Kevin [Joanne’s husband] helped when he got home from work. We picked the favorite dish, which was funny because it was the dish they made with the SPAM!”


Cooking competition shows are offering a tasty recipe for basic-cable viewers on networks across the dial.