While I'm tempted to suggest that Bravo's new show “Around the World in 80 Plates” is the result of a few creative minds who, after one too many cocktails, decided to throw a bunch of reality formats together and cross their fingers, I think the result — let's call it a reality TV mashup — is surprisingly entertaining. A combination of “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “Top Chef,” “80 Plates” is a race around the world where teams of chefs compete in culinary challenges.
At each stop, they try to win a series of small tasks in order to earn the “exceptional ingredient.” The main challenge in each city is to cook for the local population. These diners then vote on which team best represented their city or country's food. The losing team must then vote to send one of their members home. The show works, but this is because it only pretends to be a culinary competition. The real payoff is that it's basically “Survivor” with some traveling and cooking thrown in.
In fact, the smart contestants are playing “Survivor.” In this race around the world, food takes a back seat to strategy. The participants are chefs and some are probably very good chefs but their skills in the kitchen are secondary to their ability to win fairly ridiculous food challenges and manipulate a situation to their advantage. At first, I was put off by this, but that's because I was expecting a cooking contest. So I was surprised when the first episode's mini-challenge in London was for the players to go on a pub crawl and eat three classic British meals as fast as they could. It was like watching a traveling competitive eating contest. The only thing missing was Joey Chestnut and the “Black Widow.”
Once I understood that the premise was only superficially about cooking, as one contestant puts it — the show isn't about being the best chef, it's about winning money — I started to settle in and enjoy the cunning it takes to survive being voted off. Take Steve Postal, aka “Nookie,” for example. In an early episode, his dish was not good and greatly contributed to his team's loss. Yet he successfully turned the tables on a fellow chef and survived the vote. It was subtle and, frankly, a master class in manipulation. It should be required viewing for anyone considering applying for the next season of “Survivor.”
Since the cooking/traveling/racing part is only mildly interesting (let's be honest, “Top Chef” and “Amazing Race” have set the bar fairly high) and co-hosts Curtis Stone and Cat Cora appear to be doing little more than flying around the world to eat meals, “80 Plates” has to play up its strategic component. This is a good thing if you like your culinary viewing to be served with a side of “the tribe has spoken.” If not, stick with the Food Network or better yet, wait for Bravo's more meat and potatoes offering of “Top Chef.”
Page 2 of 2 - Melissa Crawley credits her love of all things small screen to her parents, who never used the line, "Or no TV!" as a punishment. Her book, “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing,’” was published in 2006. She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.