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Why cooking shouldn’t be scored

By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Most of the time, I do not enjoy cooking competitions.

So why are there so many of these culinary contests? In 2005, we saw two cooking competitions on TV: “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Food Network Star.” By 2014 there were 16.

We have a fascination – now more than ever – with watching cooks and chefs compete on television. Ratings show that cooking competitions receive the highest ratings on the Food Network and also that the “sport” of cooking drives culinary contest viewers.

I admit it’s fun. My former chef, Marcus Samuelsson, has even competed on “Iron Chef America” twice. But are we really entertained by yet another person with tattooed arms, a bandana headband, and a hip T-shirt being told, “Well done chef!” because in 20 minutes they made an entrée out of duck breast, ketchup, and cotton candy? The ratings tell us we are.

In an area where kids should compete, we’ve softened them. They don’t run up the score on the opposing team, everyone gets to play and gets a trophy, and we don’t always keep score. We love cooking competitions so much that we now watch children of the same age competitively cooking on TV on Master Chef Jr. and Kids Baking Championship.

I recently competed as part of a five-chef team against another lineup in an “Iron Chef”-style competition in Missoula. Despite our disinterest as chefs for these types of events, we were happy to participate in this particular comp in support of the big picture: a fundraiser for a new culinary school in that town.

We had a lot of fun, and the camaraderie and gifts shared between our two teams were bountiful. But in the end, we joked about the distaste we have for these events and why we’re constantly asked to participate in them. Why are people so interested in watching us run around, nervously altering our game plan, when presented with a “secret” ingredient?

Despite watching them, you may be curious why chefs don’t like participating in cooking competitions. First and foremost, the kitchen is already a stressful place – we have enough deadlines, challenges and obstacles as is. Between the daily clock and calendar, that’s enough stress.

Second, we simply do not feel that our trade merits competing against one another. It doesn’t make sense to us because cooking is subjective and can be illusory. In the same vein as two different brewers producing the same pale ale recipe, two chefs will have different takes on preparing fish.

Even using the same ingredients, what one chef does with a beautiful piece of fresh Alaskan halibut may contrast with what another chef does. Which one is better? They may be equally as tasty, just different. How would you judge two competing artists whose task was to paint their interpretation of a Picasso from his later years?

It’s generally pretty clear what a free throw, a home run, or a hockey goal is – an objective way to gain a leg up on another team. But touchdowns or home runs are, by nature, visual. True, we do eat with our eyes first, but in the end that piece of molten chocolate cake is food to be tasted.

Yet when you watch a culinary judge on the Food Network cut into beautifully seared foie gras, you wouldn’t know because you can’t taste it.

Consider if auto mechanics, for example, had a list of repairs to make before a lifted car slowly lowers to the ground. Oh, and another mechanic gets to randomly take away certain tools.

Keep competition where competition belongs: outside the kitchen.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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