I’ve been watching a lot of the Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” lately on Netflix. Worst Cooks is a reality program in which about a dozen people with terrible cooking skills spend eight weeks at a culinary “bootcamp” learning how to cook from two top-notch chefs (Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell in the seasons I’m watching). Each week the worst two “recruits” are forced to turn-in their aprons and the show ends when one recruit wins the final cooking challenge and a $25,000 prize.
Now I’m not naive enough to think that this reality show actually has anything to do with reality and I know that the format is chosen to maximize ratings rather than sound pedagogy, but while Burrell and Flay may be some of America’s best chefs, I can’t help noticing that they’re also some of the worst teachers. Here’s why:
- On every first episode, before they are taught anything, recruits are asked to cook something for the chefs, usually with humiliating results. During this time they are mocked by the experts and generally made to feel inept for lacking a skill they’ve already admitted they do not possess.
- Each week the worst two recruits are asked to leave, the same recruits who are most in need of more cooking lessons.
- The chefs often skip over the basics and demonstrate advanced cooking techniques very quickly, then expect the recruits (who “don’t know how to boil water”) to duplicate the results in an arbitrarily short span of time.
- After many of the demonstrations the recruits are asked to personalize or alter the recipe, even though they hadn’t practiced the original first.
- The chefs routinely give advice (“Be bold with your flavors”) that gets the recruits in trouble if followed (“This is too spicy.”)
- The chefs often shout meaningless advice at their recruits (“Get your act together!” “Are you kidding me?”) and are constantly berating them for their poor “time management,” even though they’re doing things they never done before and have no idea how long each step takes.
- No accommodations are made; vegetarians are expected to cook chicken and lactose-intolerant recruits are asked to make ice cream.
- Surprise twists are frequently thrown at the recruits, like adding a side-dish at the last minute or using a different ingredient than they were taught.
- Towards the end of each season, the chefs are forced to “make a difficult decision” and send someone home who’s actually cooked quite successfully.
- Many (most?) of the 5-star cooking skills the recruits learn in boot camp are not going to be useful to them when they return home. They can’t even pronounce many of the dishes they’re working on and their home kitchens are not going to be stocked with quail eggs and KitchenAid pasta makers.
I’m guessing most of these issues are done on purpose to make it more dramatic and interesting to watch. But I can’t help feeling that a good teacher should avoid using Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay as role models and do the exact opposite of what they do instead.