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BATTLE OF THE D-LIST DILETTANTES

How glamorous is the perception of full-service restaurants and the people who work in them? Television networks can't get enough of them. The latest entry, Celebrity Cooking Showdown, should have been the most successful one yet. It combined the proven formula of the Food Network's Iron Chef mano-a-mano cookoffs with that of ABC's rating champ Dancing with the Stars, where stumbling incompetents morphed into nimble-footed performers over the course of just a few shows. The idea seemed so promising that NBC gave the show a juicy late April time slot: prime time, five nights in a row. This was unprecedented stuff for a cooking show.

The first three nights of Celebrity Cooking Showdown revolved around elimination cookoffs. A total of nine celebrities (and we're using the term "celebrity" loosely) were paired off three per night with high-profile chefs Puck, Cora and Armstrong. Celebrities had an hour to prepare a three-course meal, receiving intermittent help from their designated chef. Two judges ("lifestyle expert" Colin Cowie and long-time New York Magazine food critic Gael Greene) chose the winner on the night.

Those three first-round winners were scheduled to return to cook again on night four, after which viewers could vote by phone or over the Internet for their favorite. Night five would include 45-minute-long cooking competition between Puck, Cora and Armstrong, followed by the revelation of the winning celebrity chef.

Except there was no night four, nor night five. NBC pulled the plug on the show after its third installment due to horrifically low ratings. The first night of Celebrity Cooking Showdown pulled a 5.7 rating, the second night a 2.4, the third a 3.5. Few viewers watched in the first place, and those that had weren't coming back for more.

Reality shows typically build their audience as they move toward their conclusion; Celebrity Cooking Showdown lost them at a prodigious rate. The NBC solution: Yank the show and refer those interested in seeing how the show turned out to an NBC web site.

No sooner did the network announce this turn of events than it suddenly reversed course, deciding to air the final two segments back-to-back on Saturday night. The result was an embarrassment of historic proportions.

First came the delayed fourth installment of the show, the final "celebrity" cookoff. It concluded with a lengthy segment instructing viewers how to vote for their favorite chef, complete with different phone numbers and web addresses for each. However, since this was all occurring after the fact, there couldn't really be any live voting. So the network had to superimpose a large "voting closed" graphic over the explanation of how to vote.

Next came the grand finale, episode five. The celebrity chefs had their mock "contest" to fill up the time and then, with 10 minutes left, the show went to commercial. Viewers were urged to hang on for the final segment, when the celebrity winner would be revealed.

But a strange scene greeted viewers when the show came back from commercial. Two of the six people who had been frantically cooking just minutes before were no longer on the set. Viewers got to see a live video link with the missing contestant Chelsea Cooley, the reigning Miss USA, and chef Cat Cora wished everyone well via a videotaped message from Chicago. Also, the contestants were wearing different outfits than they had before the commercial. No word was given as to how or why the missing cast members had departed. It was like getting to the finale of last year's American Idol only to find that Paula Abdul and runner-up Bo Bice hadn't hung around for the awards ceremony.

Slate TV critic Troy Patterson summed it up this way:
"Some might say that Celebrity Cooking Showdown looks as if it were made by people without much experience producing television programs," he wrote. "This would be accurate but not precise. It looks as if it were made by people without much experience watching television programs."

Fortunately, few were around to witness this fiasco. The Saturday showing produced historically low ratings of 1.8-more or less the ambient viewership for any network show. "Test pattern numbers" is how they put it in the trade.

Cindy MargolisSo who was the celebrity winner? The lightly credentialed Cindy Margolis, primarily famous as being the most downloaded celebrity on the Internet. She used a strong public relations push on her well-trafficked web site (www.cindymargolis.com) to drum up votes. Her fans may have been the only ones savvy enough to figure out how and when to cast a vote.

What are Margolis's plans now that she has won the Celebrity Cooking Showdown? "Three weeks ago, I couldn't boil water," she says. "Now thanks to Wolfgang and all my cyber buddies out there, I'm the Celebrity Cooking Champion of the World!"

So is she going to Disneyland to celebrate? Not exactly. She's hoping for a photo spread in Playboy instead.

"It's always been a dream of mine to pose in Playboy," she says. "So if Hef comes a'knocking, I just may answer the door."

Sound like an airhead? Not so fast. Margolis and her husband Guy Starkman own the Jerrys Famous Deli Chain of restaurants. Cindy's an operator, just like you.

So should we shelve the celebrity cooking contest format forever?

Nope. It's possible to do it right. The Food Network's Celebrity Food Fight, a one-hour pilot that aired just prior to Celebrity Cooking Showdown, was a relatively classy affair. The two celebrity chefs, Morgan Fairchild and Mario Cantone, began by visiting the restaurants of, respectively, Todd English and Daniel Boulud for "culinary bootcamp." Then they returned to the studio to make their dishes in a timed contest. Boulud and English jumped in to help via "Chef Lines" when the celebrities hit a rough patch.

The finished dished were judged by a three-personal panel that included Drew Nieporent. The food looked and, the judges proclaimed, tasted good.

The key to this show's success was its chefs. English is experienced on TV, and Boulud…well, let's just say it's highly unusual for someone of his culinary stature to even participate in a show like this. The important thing to know about Daniel Boulud is not so much that he has the top-ranked place in New York City, nor that he now has three Michelin stars in the new Michelin NYC guide. It's that when a group of famous chefs gathers to cook at some important charity event, everyone naturally looks to Boulud as the guy who's going to tell them what to do. His presence enabled Celebrity Food Fight to be both fun and yet dignified. Celebrity Cooking Showdown was neither.

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