Cooking Under Fire's premise is that it gathers a dozen aspiring chefs from around the country to compete for the putative title of America's next great chef. There's no popular voting, like American Idol. Instead, a panel of three judges-English, Ming Tsai and author Michael Ruhlman-decides who gets kicked off (86'ed, in show parlance) each week. The winner gets a job as a chef at one of English's restaurants in New York City.
Let's stick with this last line for a minute. We’re repeating it word-for-word from the Cooking Under Fire publicity handout, and English and others repeated it the same way on each of the first two episodes. Is it just us, or isn't this description a little vague? Guys, how about telling the audience and the contestants exactly where the job will be, how much it will pay, and what the winner's title and duties will be. We sure hope they don't put the winner out at Figs in the LaGuardia Airport. And the only other English operations in New York City are Olives in the W Hotel on Union Square and English is Italian (yes, that is the name of the restaurant), the Boston' chef's new one in partnership with Jeffrey Chodorow. So tell us already what the big prize will be.
Also mysterious were the whereabouts of show star English during the first episode. The judges traveled to several U.S. cities to interview prospective contestants, but Ruhlman and Tsai were a two-man panel a lot of the time. Can you imagine the furor if, say, acid-tongued judge Simon Cowell was a no-show on an American Idol episode?
To be fair, English, Tsai and Ruhlman make for an excellent judging panel. They're knowledgeable, decisive and merciless enforcers of high culinary standards. To date, they are the show's primary strength.
As for the 12 contestants, there are several you'd hire in a heartbeat, while most of the others could use a little more time on the line before they move up the ladder. That said, it's hard to imagine any of these 12 swaggering into a busy New York restaurant and telling the staff they will have to do things my way or else.
If it turns out you can't handle Cooking Under Fire, don't despair. Fox's Hell's Kitchen restaurant reality show, starring British chef Gordon Ramsay, debuts in late May. It's the show where a $2 million restaurant will be awarded to the winner. Not only is it a way-better prize than Cooking Under Fire; viewers and participants will know what’s at stake from the get-go.