Critic's Notebook: The Brutal, Bloodthirsty Catharsis of Cooking Competition Shows

Maggie Shannon
History's 'The Butcher.'

Far from traditionally relaxing, Foodie TV is chock-full of heart-pounding triumphs and defeats that keep us coming back for more.

"Come on, Sean!" I shriek at my television, glued to the image of a stooped, bearded hipster sprinting back and forth between his butchery station and a stockroom while rushing to break down a nine-foot-tall dead ostrich into dozens of beautifully red and glistening cuts of meat. He hustles along, stripping the bird of its tough skin and whittling away its sinew and gristle to reveal juicy portions such as the fillet. When Sean wins the episode, garnering the highest retail value for his ostrich cuts compared to his opponent, I whoop and clap as though my favorite MVP has come through for me again. "Yeah, boy!"

If you're a fan of body horror or just carnivory in general, History's new meat-cutting competition series The Butcher is a wondrously thrilling (and gruesome) sight to behold: Each episode, four new professional butchers compete to creatively hack away at flesh until the assigned animal transforms into a luxurious exhibition of sculpted slices worth salivating over. Because contrary to popular opinion, cooking competition shows like The Great British Bake-Off, Chopped, Nailed It!, Top Chef, The Big Family Cooking Showdown and the MasterChef franchise aren't "Comfort TV" — they're bloodthirsty sport.

Each of these series and their endless boob tube doppelgangers rely on heart-pounding theatrics to entice millions of connoisseurs like myself who have the kinesthetic intelligence of a spoon, but still crave entertainment based on physical prowess, expert play-by-play and progressive elimination. These competing cooks and food industry professionals must master speed, tactic, precision and intuition like any athlete, whether they're trying to craft an epicurean feast from congealed corn cob jelly and slimy whole canned chicken or carefully wadding a pie crust to ensure it doesn't develop a dreaded "soggy bottom."

Far from traditionally relaxing, these shows can actually help wring out your stress and aggression at the end of a long day by pumping you up to hurl vulgarities at the sight of rubbery, overcooked scallops or frosting that melted in the humidity. "You fucking piece-of-shit moron," you might shout at an adorable, bespectacled grandfather who spent more time perfecting his white chocolate tuiles than he did balancing the flavors of his three-tier showstopper cake. Cathartic, isn't it?

Most of the yelling in my household occurs, however, when we're watching Fox's MasterChef Junior, Gordon Ramsay's gourmet cooking challenge starring children ages 8-13. (My husband and I are equal-opportunity abusers when given the comfortable psychological distance a TV screen provides, so if you think we hold back the gleeful expletives when a cherubic nine-year-old adds too much char to his delicate lamb chops, you'd be dead wrong.)

One of The Great British Bake-Off 's most-cited draws is what viewers commonly refer to as the show's natural "calm." There are no "blammo!" sound effects, the contestants sweetly support one another and the only cruelty committed are the hosts' compulsive punning. (I mean, baby lambs legitimately bleat on meadows during the interstitials.)

But these pleasantries merely mask the true nail-biting angst these baking challenges dredge up for participants and audiences alike. Compare, say, a technical challenge to create a green, marzipan-domed Swedish "prinsesstarta" to any serene segment on the similarly cozy Netflix food-travel docuseries Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and you'll realize the extent to which Bake-Off (also available on Netflix) brings quiet intensity to the table. It's the golf of food challenge shows.

In fact, each type of program comes in a different flavor of re-creation. Food Network's "mystery basket" classic Chopped is like football — all puzzle-breaking and strategizing. The merry chaos and discord of Netflix's Nailed It! calls to mind a bloody ice rink during a hockey brawl. The Butcher is an ancient Greek Olympic throwing competition, men and women utilizing their brute strength to continuously hurl sides of beef (or python) across a production set. Fox's amateur cook-focused MasterChefs are primarily intramural — not varsity — leagues, emphasizing the importance of teamwork, leadership, communication and collaboration, while Bravo's Top Chef is as siloed as a track and field race.

As a self-taught cook, I've absorbed far more about gastronomic technique and history from these time-pressure elimination challenges than I ever have from any traditionally instructive cooking program. (Did you know the most tender portion of an alligator is known as "the jellyroll"?) These TV shows force me inside the heads of their competitors and judges simultaneously, the anxiety of this cognitive dissonance creating flashbulb memories that I later take to my own kitchen. Years before Samin Nosrat was articulately extolling the virtues of combining contrasting flavors on the first season of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I was subconsciously collecting the wisdom of Chopped's fierce chefs and snarky judges, learning to blend sweetness, sourness, pungency and umami in almost every savory dish of my own invention.

The Butcher, already poised to become one of my favorite summer 2019 programs, represents a new kind of food challenge show — one that dares us to face the bloodcurdling realities behind preparing some of our society's most prized and exotic ingredients for the display case. (Yes, you actually see how the sausage is made.) The show pushes the boundaries of what is considered "suitable" Foodie TV, offering a transparent and unabashed glimpse into how flesh becomes food. Even its hilariously glib explanatory animations, which demonstrate how a particular cut peels from its carcass, are welcome tableaux of transgression. 

So, give me my bread and circuses. Literally.