Reality cooking competitions serve up some of the best fare on TV. The audience gets to enjoy watching chefs at war with each other—plus all the backstabbing, egomania, and melt-downs that go with it—and see innovative solutions to some pretty extraordinary challenges. Plus, the winning dishes may actually inspire you to “try this at home.”
Ready to dig in? Get started with this guide to the best reality cooking competitions on TV.
Since 2006, Bravo’s “Top Chef” has pitted a steady stream of rising chefs against one another in challenges that test their culinary skills and creativity. Presented by Padma Lakshmi and presided over by a panel of three colorful judges, the show’s unique challenges keep it a fulfilling creation season after season.
Each episode features a Quickfire and Elimination challenge. A fan favorite is Restaurant Wars, the elimination challenge in which two teams launch pop-up restaurants. The top three chefs of the season compete in the finale. The winner of Season 16 was awarded a cash prize of $125,000, another $50,000 in products from Williams Sonoma, and an editorial feature in Food & Wine Magazine.
Based on the original BBC show, “MasterChef America” debuted on FOX in 2010. Unlike “Top Chef,” which focuses on professional chefs, “MasterChef” features amateur and home cooks. Season 9 of “Master Chef America” debuted a new format in which a trio of celebrity chefs—vineyard owner/chef Joe Bastianich, Food Network favorite Aarón Sánchez, and “Hell’s Kitchen” veteran Gordon Ramsay—each select and mentor a promising contestant with the goal of transforming him or her into a culinary master. The grand prize is $250,000 and the “MasterChef” title.
If you like to imagine world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay as a strict but loving father-figure/mentor, watch “MasterChef.” If you prefer to watch an acidic, bile-spewing Ramsay put aspiring chefs through incomparable challenges and then assess their flaws with brutal, devastating honesty, then “Hell’s Kitchen” is the show for you. While verbal abuse that passes for critique may have lost its luster for some viewers, there’s still something undeniably compelling about Ramsay’s rants, or the show or it wouldn’t have survived for such a long time.
Iron Chef America
Do you hunger for a combination of high camp, high drama, and fabulous ingredients? Do you relish watching genius chefs work at breakneck speed to create unforgettable dishes? Then the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” will satisfy your every craving. The long-running show is currently helmed by “The Chairman,” portrayed by American actor/martial artist Mark Alan Dacascos and hosted by veteran TV chef/host Alton Brown. Each show features a cook-off between an up-and-coming challenger and the Iron Chef of his or her choice who must take the main ingredient in the mystery basket and transform it into a series of courses worthy of the culinary gods and a rotating panel of celebrity judges.
Former “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” original cast member and culinary expert, Ted Allen, hosts this Food Network cooking competition in which chefs compete by cooking three-course meals. The twist: each course must include ingredients from a mystery basket, which often leads to mind-boggling concoctions as contestants struggle to incorporate items like Rocky Mountain oysters, pig’s blood, canned chicken, durian, leftover pizza, and fiddlehead ferns into an edible creation.
Each show features a fresh batch of cooking contenders, so viewers don’t get a chance to root for a favorite through a full season. However, there are “redemption” episodes that bring back former contestants to determine who will fall by the wayside once more and who will emerge as a Chopped Champion.
Honorable Mention Spin-offs
Like most movie sequels, reality spin-offs rarely succeed in recreating the magic of the original shows, but there are a few that have managed to beat the odds. These three reality cooking competition spin-offs are as engaging as the shows that spawned them.
- “Chopped Junior.” Amazing, inspiring, and just downright awesome, these talented, imaginative chefs between the ages of 9 and 15 take on the mystery basket ingredients with all the aplomb of their adult counterparts, and three rounds later—appetizer, entrée, and dessert—one of them walks away with bragging rights, a new chef’s coat, and $10,000.
- “Next Iron Chef.” In this “Iron Chef” permutation, 10 highly successful chefs take on food challenges in locales around the globe. The finale pits the top two contestants against one another in the Food Network’s Kitchen Stadium, where the winner is declared a new Iron Chef and can compete on “Iron Chef America.”
- “Top Chef Masters.” This Top Chef progeny stars world-renowned chefs. Each week they compete against each other, and one is eliminated until the finale in which the remaining chefs have a cook-off for the $100,000 grand prize (which is donated to the charity of their choice).