In honor of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, enjoy one of our favorites from the Paste Vault, originally published 2/21/2018 during the Winter Olympics
For the past week-plus, the world has come together to witness the best of our collective best strive to reach new pinnacles of human achievement. Together we watched Chloe Kim become the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s on the Olympic halfpipe. As one we saw Mirai Nagasu become the first woman ever to land an Olympic triple axel. Literally at the moment of writing this, I joined the millions watching live as Shaun White ripped his way to a third Olympic gold, hitting perfect back-to-back 1440s in his third and final halfpipe run, corkscrewing the sky in twin spectacles of pure, gnarly athleticism.
Each one of these achievements, inspiring; each one, documented with pure, earnest, utterly respectful awe. Even teen snowboard phenom Red Gerard’s incredulous, incredibly unbleeped shout of “HOLY F*CK!” in the chaotic moment when his victory was confirmed—even that, NBC’s anchors and we in the Winter Olympics audience accepted with due grace and forgiving LOLs.
Food Network’s joyfully awe-trashing, trash-talking competition cooking show, Beat Bobby Flay, is not the Olympics.
But—and here is where it might seem like I’m going straight off the slopestyle rails—save for its constitutional opposition to the kind of respectful earnestness the real Olympics engender, Beat Bobby Flay is weirdly like the Olympics. A much lower stakes, almost entirely American Bobby Flay Olympics, in which the pinnacles of culinary achievement Bobby Flay has genuinely reached turn his very person into something as immutable as a season, or an ideal, or a collection of natural obstacles to be physically overcome.
Just as the Olympics wouldn’t be a spectacle we’d collectively take on every two years if it weren’t possible for the athletes involved to continue to improve and innovate, to beat the season, to top the ideal, to overcome the fierce natural obstacles (it’s impressive that South Korea managed to bring their cost of mounting the 2018 games down to $12.9 billion from Sochi’s $50 billion, but not so impressive that the undertaking sells itself), neither would Beat Bobby Flay—or Flay’s former roadshow showdown vehicle, Throwdown with Bobby Flay (2006-2011), or the venerable Iron Chef institution Flay’s reputation and competitive skills were forged on—have any kind of longevity if it weren’t possible for the chefs challenging him to meet his known level of excellence and rise above.
Bobby Flay sometimes loses, is what I’m saying. And that’s what makes his shows so great.
Now, losing on a cooking show isn’t new. But most cooking show failure—on Chopped, on Top Chef, on Halloween Wars, even on the Great British Bakeoff—is graded on a curve. The chef or baker crowned champion at the end of the hour, season, or series is the best of that group, and while it might be nice to imagine that everyone who makes it onto these shows has topped the same high bar just to start competing, anyone who has watched hundreds of hours of Chopped knows in their bones that way before the Chopped Champion level, there are fields of chefs competing with vastly unequal skill sets.
What Beat Bobby Flay (and Throwdown, and ) does is remove that failure curve as a variable. The only way to win is to start at the height of documented excellence—a single 1440 on the halfpipe; a single signature dish perfect enough to earn an invite to Bobby Flay’s kitchen—and then to kill it in the execution. On the 2018 Men’s Halfpipe that meant two 1440s in a row; on Beat Bobby Flay, it might mean the perfect falafel (or taco, or tuna casserole). Then, when you win—and on Beat Bobby Flay, the challengers do often win—it is a victory as pure and earned as any on the Olympics many snowy mountains.
Of course, a person is not and can never be the same as the Olympics as a categorical ideal. Personality and the ability to have chemistry with anyone and everyone are necessary for any one human helming a long-running franchise (see Tom Bergeron charm the mirrorball itself on Dancing With the Stars), but people — especially and notoriously male chefs — are messy and too often carried by ego. An enterprise with a singular (male) chef celebrity as the “Ideal To Beat” like Beat Bobby Flay can only work if that singular chef celebrity is willing to truly treat himself as an obstacle that can be overcome. This requires humility and affability in equal measure, and whatever reputation Flay has accrued outside the Throwdown and Beat Bobby Flay kitchen, in competition on screen with non-celebrity chefs he has at least mastered the appearance of both. When he enters the arena, Flay evinces the genuine belief that his best might, this time, not be good enough; when the winner is announced, whether it is him or his challenger, he reacts with at least the appearance of real gravitas—sincere but not crowing pride when he prevails; sincere but never bitter delight when the victor is his challenger.
But while Flay’s approach to the thing of the competition is Olympics-level respectful, the real fun of Beat Bobby Flay is the outsized, almost classically grotesque way in which the show barrels through its mere 30 minutes: sinking the kitchen below the ring of spectators in a way that evokes underground fight clubs; using a boxing ring bell to signal the starts and ends of rounds; employing a pair of Bobby’s friends to “draft” the best possible competitors to take him down; giving those same friends license to gleefully trash-talk Bobby while he’s cooking in an attempt to sabotage his efforts. It is wildly, obviously fake, but therein is the delight—Beat Bobby Flay doesn’t once try to pretend that, despite the clear degree of skill with which every chef in the pit is cooking, it needs to take itself too seriously. It even eschews the default dramatic manipulation, “And the secret ingredient/signature dish/winner is… [cut to commercial break],” opting instead to just straight up say the thing. Beat Bobby Flay is not here for drama. It is here for FUN.
So, OK, Beat Bobby Flay is not THE Olympics. But the Olympics and Paralympics only last for so long. Bobby Flay, though, will be in his kitchen every week to keep the (trash-talking) spectacle of extraordinary human achievement going strong.
Beat Bobby Flay airs on the Food Network. It is also available to stream on discovery+ and Hulu.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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