Everyone knows that Americans love to eat and that Americans love to compete, but few could have foreseen programs and entire networks devoted to competitive cooking.
Not all that long ago the notion would have been as laughable as cage-fighting hamsters.
But now, add a dash of “The Amazing Race,” season liberally with reality-show cues set in exotic locales and finally, reference a literary classic.
Voila: a heaping helping of Bravo’s new offering, “Around The World In 80 Plates.”
Starting out with 12 chefs, the contestants travel the world, explore customs and cuisines, and ultimately compete under strict guidelines and very limited time frames. The kitchens are unfamiliar and the ingredients are often most unusual.
Ultimately, the chefs must please the toughest judges of all: local patrons of the restaurants in each international city.
Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Cat Cora host this culinary adventure on a trek that covers more than 60,000 miles.
“We had a lot of fun in Thailand,” Australian-born Chef Curtis said on a conference call with Chef Cat, “though Morocco was pretty amazing as well. But, we had a lot of fun in Thailand. Cat, let’s be honest. You know, it’s one of those …”
“And it’s a really fun place to go out and have a good time!” Cat interrupted.
Laughing, Curtis moved on.
“I loved Buenos Aires [Argentina] as well, for the culture and the beauty. It was a real eye-opener for me, the way they cook Asador style on those grill pits for you know, their entire life. They’re just so skilled!”
“For me,” Cat said, “I’d love to be sitting on that Greek island eating a great grilled octopus salad and some fantastic lamb and sipping a little Ouzo.”
“I don’t know,” Curtis responded. “I’d go back to Bologna [Italy] in a heartbeat, Cat, and eat that truffle salad that we had late night at that place, that little trattoria with the poached egg and white truffles.”
But it wasn’t all fun, especially for the chefs. Moments after meeting, Cat and Curtis forced the 12 chefs to choose two teams of six.
“I’m a private chef. I used to work at a sorority house,” confessed contestant Gary Walker, one of the gay competitors. “I considered myself more like Mrs. Garret than a private chef.”
Gary continued his thoughts.
“Now Curtis, he’s hot, and Cat is a bad ass in the kitchen. But I just knew I didn’t want to be the fat kid in dodge ball and be the last one picked,” Gary said.
A second interview with Cat Cora
Later, in a private telephone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, Cat addressed that tough-girl image and what it took to get where she is today.
“I learned to be fearless. Growing up in Mississippi, being a woman and being gay, being 5-2, working in a man’s world, going to France and working in three-star restaurants, you learn to be fearless. You learn to have a thick skin,” Cat said.
Then there was the matter of being a Mom.
“Having four boys, being the main bread winner and having to protect your children … Yeah, I have grown. But I’m not completely fearless. Trust me,” she said.
Interestingly, Cat seems a much bigger presence on screen. When asked to comment on that illusion, she laughed,
“Yeah, I’m 5-1 ¾! I exaggerated earlier. I’m small but mighty.”
Cat touched on her personal life.
“I really have never experienced prejudice in my life, and I think it’s the way I carry myself. I think that makes a huge amount of difference,” Cat said. “Now what people say behind my back is another thing and that doesn’t bother me. I don’t pay a lot of attention. It is just noise. It’s just vapor, and if you don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t exist, right?”
She credits her childhood for grounding her.
“My parents instilled a lot of confidence in me at a very young age, and I’ve had to instill my own confidence. And that’s very important, especially to young minority readers out there,” Cat said. “Whether you’re gay, another race, a woman or what have you. It’s really important, what you instill in yourself. The phrase, ‘It gets better’ means a lot these days, and it’s true. It does get better.”
“Around The World In 80 Plates” is about good food. It’s about competition. It’s about gaining familiarity with other lands and people. But at the end of the day, perhaps “80 Plates” is most importantly a dialogue. There’s an undercurrent that speaks to some of the biggest issues of all: How we feel about ourselves, and how we feel about others.
The unfamiliar can be good. Change and challenge and new horizons are good, especially with a confident presentation,” Cat said..
Trust your instincts. Taste, and then take a bite.
It does get better.
“Around The World In 80 Plates”
Wednesdays at 10 pm, repeated often.
Kurt Niece is a freelance journalist from Tucson, Ariz., and author of "The Breath of Rapture." He writes about television for SDGLN. He is also an artist who sells his work on his website.