If you’ve been living under a rock, then you’ve probably missed the thousands of television spots, billboard ads, and print campaigns for Around the World in 80 Plates, Bravo’s new food competition show premiering tonight, May 9, at 10pm EST. Why, I’ve seen so many ads for this show, I could even tell you the sponsor (“presented by Chase Sapphire Preferred” is the new “based on the novel Push by Sapphire”). But don’t let the over-saturation of the marketing message turn you off: Around the World in 80 Plates is a super-fun twist on the everyday cooking show not to be missed. And for a network that’s been trying to find a non-Top Chef food reality show hit in the past year to no avail (see: Chef Roble and Co, Rocco’s Dinner Party), I’d say that Bravo has struck culinary gold. Here’s why you should tune in:
It’s not just another food competition show
Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef, The Next Food Network Star, Iron Chef, Chopped – it seems like every time I turn around, there’s another food competition show on my DVR. Heck, Bravo alone has three of them: Top Chef, Top Chef: Masters, and Top Chef: Just Desserts. After a while, they all start to blend. But 80 Plates finds a way to stand out from the rest by fusing an Amazing Race-like travel element into its basic format. Each week, “cheftestants” (man I hate myself for using that word) travel to a different international city, where they’re immersed in the local customs, cultures, and cuisines. They’re then tested upon that knowledge, forced to recreate and reinvent said cuisine. And oh, the places they go! Over 60,000 miles across 5 continents. Cities like London, Argentina, China, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Thailand, and Uruguay, with challenges as diverse as eating their way through the pubs of London or navigating through the cobra-and-monkey-filled Moroccan street markets. It’s a pretty ambitious journey – and one that gives us viewers at home a killer worldly culinary education. You won’t see that sort of shit on Cupcake Wars.
Every week is “Restaurant Wars”
If you’re an avid Top Chef watcher, then you’ll probably agree the best episode of a Top Chef season is “Restaurant Wars,” where the chefs split into two teams and open competing restaurants in two days. Well on Around the World in 80 Plates, that goes down every week. At every city, the chefs must take over a current restaurant, cook the local food, and serve it back to the patrons who normally inhibit these spaces. The locals then pick the winner of who represented their country the best. It’s a cool twist on the restaurant wars format – one that we get to see week after week. It’s like you’re back in school and every day is pizza day.
The chefs can’t just sit in their wheelhouse
One of the things that bugs me the most about reality shows is when one contestant keeps doing the same thing over and over again (see American Idol’s Phillip Phillips and Project Runway’s Kenley Collins for recent examples). On Top Chef, the problem is practically an epidemic. While chefs are forced to experiment with ingredients, they stay within the particular palate of “their food” – which is usually heavily influenced by the restaurant in which they have trained or currently work (Season 2’s Ilan Hall and Season 7’s Angelo Sosa come to mind as the worst repeat offenders). On 80 Plates, that can’t happen. Each week, they’re forced to make food that speaks to a totally different culture. Our 12 chefs have to be versatile and flexible.
The chefs choose who’s going home
If you thought 80 Plates was shaping up to be The Amazing Race meets Top Chef, then think again: there’s also some serious Survivor in play. In my favorite twist of all, each week, the losing team has to vote their fellow team mates off. How cool is that? As you can imagine, things get a little tense. Lots of alliances and drama and “throwing people under the bus.” Sure, things aren’t as tense as they are on Hell’s Kitchen. No one is getting screamed at here while he/she tries to cook a scallop. And it’s not super mean either, like when everyone ganged up on Beverly on Top Chef: Texas. But it’s the right amount of drama that’s been missing from the rest of these shows, and will surely create some delicious moments.
Curtis Stone and Cat Cora are your hosts – but don’t call them mentors/judges
Celebrity chef Curtis Stone has made a bit of a career out of hosting reality cooking shows on NBC networks, having hosted NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant and Bravo’s Top Chef: Masters. Cat Cora certainly knows how to work her way around the kitchen with challenging ingredients, having appeared on Iron Chef America. They were both trained in French kitchens. They’ve both had incredibly successful culinary careers. On the surface, they would perfect hosts/mentors/judges for the series. But don’t expect them to get very involved. On 80 Plates, Cat and Curtis serve more as tour guides, taking contestants through each city and each challenge. Sure, they eat the food along the way, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each dish with the locals and for us watching at home. And they moderate the final elimination ceremonies. But their options don’t count. They don’t choose which team wins the “restaurant wars” portion (remember: that choice is made by the locals). They don’t choose who gets eliminated each week (remember: that choice is made by the chefs themselves). And they’re not necessarily walking around the cooking challenges, giving advice and tips. In that way, 80 Plates is more about the people than any other cooking show we’ve seen so far.