House of Food: TV Review

When the drama overwhelms the learning and competition, the show's palate becomes one disappointingly too focused on bitter and sour. 

MTV show puts seven strangers in a house to see what happens when dishes stop being polite, and start being veal.

A house divided against itself will not stand -- but that doesn't mean it can't get saucy. MTV's new fusion reality series House of Food combines elements of The Real World with a food competition show, where seven (and later eight) aspiring chefs compete against one another, and live together during the process. Unlike other cooking series, the initial desire of House of Food appears to be instruction, while also rewarding talent and hard work. It's the closest MTV has ever come to a docuseries that mirrors college life, where the students (ages 21-24) have lessons and homework -- but of course, make time for plenty of time for partying.

The eight competitors, all of whom fit into loosely sketched reality personality types like "the rocker chick," the "bewildered country boy" and "the bitchy princess," are mentored by Chris Nirschel, CEO of the New York City-based catering company Culinary Bad Boy Productions. But Nirschel is truthfully no more than a host -- the real mentoring comes from a trio of Los Angeles executive chefs (Casey Lane of The Tasting Kitchen, Brendan Collins of Waterloo & City, and Brooke Williamson of Hudson House) who critique and reward the competitors. While the series carries the soft subtitle "Los Angeles," suggesting there might be other, city-specific franchises, the students are from all over the country, and the chefs themselves don't necessarily create a particular sense of what makes their work in the L.A. restaurant scene different from any other.

The most interesting thing about House of Food is a sudden retooling that happens between the first and second episodes. The students are actually sent home in the interim, then are relocated to a palatial L.A. manse with a much larger kitchen than their original abode. They even pick up a new roommate, while one of the former competitors is thought to drop out (she doesn't, but does disappear for a while). The purpose of the series also seems to shift from one focused on instruction (as in the premiere episode, where the students learned how to make their own pasta, and what emulsifying means) to one that throws the competitors to the lions to see who survives. 

The problem is, these aspiring cooks don't have any real experience, making the sink-or-swim approach unworkable. The retooling highlights the missed opportunity that House of Food has to be a show that instructs not only its young culinary hopefuls, but also a viewing audience looking to pick up or cultivate the art of cooking. By the second episode, the drama unsurprisingly takes center stage, and the house divides into the mean versus the nice. The drama between the two groups, and among their own, starts eating up screen time, with too many minutes devoted to a reductio ad absurdum of whether a kiss is a kiss, instead of worrying about the quality of their sauce reduction.

As House of Food devolves more into The Real World than Top Chef, it loses its freshness. The high-pressure scenes in the kitchens have a much more genuine feel (with real stakes and mistakes) than those in the house, where awkward conversations about things that didn't matter the first time are reheated hours later. The quips have their place, and occasionally, add some vain humor: "everything in the kitchen is just so hot, and I don't look good when I sweat," laments Will from Boston. But his machinations and petty drama, along with scheming pal Suki from Portland, dominate the dynamics in the house. Other relationships, like a quick bond of friendship between over-achiever Brian and country boy Jake, are overlooked in favor of the cattiness, which is a shame. The more interesting approach would be to see how friendships might feel the strain of competition, rather than manufactured villains attempting to shame their prey. 

Though the show's competition format is more successful than its house theatrics, it comes with its own issues. When the students are thrown into a rush-hour diner situation without instruction, and are then lambasted for their failure, the point is lost. The judges, taking a cue from the younger set, emphasize snark and explosive tempers (Lane is particularly aggressive in tearing down their work, refusing to even taste the prepped dishes). Some of that is satisfying, especially when it's in response to the students' eye-rolling suggesting that their "artistic flair" is being removed, or regarding their snobbery toward diner cooks. Other times, it's just mean and unhelpful sneering.

Like a new dish, House of Food could use some more retooling to make it a hit. The idea and ambition -- at least, initially -- are things that could make the show stand out. But for now, it's held back by its commitment to stale formulas and forced drama. "Tomorrow's gonna suck, you're all gonna suck," Collins flippantly tells the hopefuls. But lest the mood fall too far, or the show be mistaken for anything more than it is, the punky Amanda succinctly emotes, "My heart sank into my freakin' vagina."