'On the Menu': TV Review

On the Menu Still - H 2014
Tyler Golden

On the Menu Still - H 2014

A highly brand-oriented twist on an old cooking show formula

TNT's take on the cooking show formula is one for the common man: Winning dishes will be available in restaurants across the country the following day

The most surprising thing about TNT's new cooking competition show, On the Menu, is that it has taken this long to find a way for viewers to experience the dishes prepared onscreen. While many new reality series have been exploring crossover ideas (using second screens to enhance viewing experiences, or attempting to connect with social media in a dynamic way), On the Menu goes old-school by tantalizing viewers to get up and actually go out, in order to purchase the dishes they see created week to week.

The One Three Media production, hosted by everyone's favorite husky-voiced and jittery former carpenter, Ty Pennington (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), also employs celebrity chef and cooking show veteran Emeril Lagasse (Top Chef) as a mentor (a subdued Lagasse has no catchphrases to wield here, though the contestants parrot them out anyway: "Bam!"). While he encourages the contestants, he also voices his concerns to the camera, and even, occasionally, schools the guest judges (who are corporate executives for the brand being featured that week) on some of the finer parts of what the chefs are accomplishing. 

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The series, which is part of an experimental line of TNT reality shows (like the very good Boston's Finest, and the not-as-successful The Hero), makes no bones about the fact that it is geared toward the hoi polloi and not necessarily foodies (in fact, its emphasis on fast-cooking uniformity is a foodie nightmare). It's also unabashedly about branding. The first of three elimination challenges focuses on having the chefs (four different contestants in each episode) create a dish that tastes exactly like, or in some way mimics, what is already a signature dish at the restaurant of the week (such as Chili's, Denny's, Planet Hollywood, Outback Steakhouse and others). It's a requirement, therefore, to have a deep, working knowledge of the brand in order to compete well enough to move on.

The three who advance to the next stage are then asked to create a new dish that, again, meshes with the chain's current menu and audience. While the first challenge is the antithesis of creativity, here the earnest home cooks (who are typically in their 30s to 50s, and equally distributed gender-wise) are able to show off what makes each of them distinct, while also being restrained. A test kitchen with 40 fans of the featured restaurant also sample each dish, filling out comment cards while also being secretly filmed, so that the executives are able to see their unfiltered reactions (as in "Wow … he's yelling at the burger"). 

The top two cooks then continue to a final round, where they refine their dishes and present them to Pennington, Lagasse, and the executives, who then choose which dish will appear on the restaurant's menu (the winner also receives $25,000, while the runners-up receive $500 gift cards to the restaurant, which seems like a big serving of humble pie). Those items will then be available across the country the very next day for curious viewers to try for themselves — a very savvy bit of marketing that may pique the salivary glands of even the most hesitant viewers.

The real challenge, in truth, would be for the cooks to create meals that were healthy. Instead, ample amounts of calories are deep-fried and greased with oil, making some of the most artery-clogging items imaginable. Then again, On the Menu is all about giving the people what they want. "God knows we fry a lot of things at Chili's," the chain's head chef comments, "and it does well."

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While most of On the Menu's set and setup is standard within the cooking competition game, it does have a few quirks, the most noticeable being its horrifying opening credits sequence set to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business." The music and lyrics don't fit the rest of the show's tone at all, and seeing Ty and Emeril (and some of the weekly contestants) dancing around with spatulas and frying pans is farcical at best. 

Despite those kinds of goofy bumps, On the Menu is essentially a fun and fast-paced hour of mouthwatering creations that, for once, can actually be consumed by the public at large. Though there may be some very fair arguments to be made about how much of what is wrong with cooking in America is thanks to the calorie factories featured on the show, there's no denying that On the Menu, like those restaurants, has a clear sense of what it wants to accomplish, and executes it pretty well. The only business ultimately being taken care of may be corporate interests, but the more immediate consumer impression, in the words of Ty Pennington, is "Burger me!"