If you’ve ever wished that Top Chef was more like The Amazing Race, with a little bit of Survivor thrown in for good measure, then you’ll want to tune in to Bravo’s newest cooking competition Around the World in 80 Plates, which premieres tonight at 10pm. The show’s contestants range from a chef de cuisine at New York City’s Fatty Crab and the executive chef for the Boston Red Sox to a guy who used to work as a private chef in a sorority house and an oddly pretentious dude from Hollywood who has dubbed himself “Cheven” (as in Chef Keven). But as hosts Curtis Stone and Cat Cora pointed out at a launch party we attended earlier in the week, it’s not just experience in the kitchen that will determine the winner; they will also need to have the street smarts necessary to navigate foreign cities, and perhaps even more importantly, people smarts, given the fact that the losing team will decide who gets voted off each week. This means certain strategies that wouldn’t traditionally apply in a cooking competition — like intentionally making average food in order to fly under the radar — will inevitably come into play.
The series premiere kicks off in London, where the 12 chefs meet and are immediately asked to divide themselves into two teams for the first “course” challenge — aka, the non-cooking competitions that determine who wins each episode’s “exceptional” ingredient. In this instance, they’re doing a pub crawl where they need to eat and drink specific items off the menu at three locations. (If you’ve seen the promos for the show, this is when they all start running and that one lady totally wipes out on the sidewalk.) While the red team immediately hops in a cab, the black team inexplicably decides that it would be much faster to run to the first spot on their list. Seriously. We won’t spoil what happens for you, but suffice it to say that copious amounts of traditional British food are quickly consumed by both teams, and everyone ends up kind of drunk, with a stomachache to boot.
Which brings us to the first cooking challenge. Each of the teams is taking over a gastropub, where they’ll need to create five dishes that will be judged by regular customers. Two they can pick; the other three are the very foods that they wolfed down earlier that day. The winning team from earlier gets to use the exceptional ingredient, which in this case seems absolutely essential — potatoes. If you’re a fan of Top Chef’s stress-filled “Restaurant Wars” episodes, then you’re already familiar with the drama that ensues, compounded here by the fact that these people barely know one another and are cooking under very strict parameters for a knowledgeable crowd. Among the new things we learned: It’s apparently really bad luck to change the name of a pub, and if you’re serving chips, they better not look like McDonald’s fries.
In the end, the diners pick their winner, and the losing team has to decide who among them has to go home. It’s the Survivor-style game playing in this deliberation portion of the show that makes 80 Plates different than any of the other reality TV cooking competitions, and a welcome addition to our DVR. As one of the chefs explains, “My strategy is to admit that [my dish] was bad. I want to get them talking about how bad it was, and as we get to the end of the time, I want to shift the focus off of me, and shift it on to someone else.” How devious! While we’ve seen a good amount of backstabbing on the various incarnations of Top Chef, if this first episode is any indication, 80 Plates promises to offer up the kind of alliances and manipulation that makes for incredibly exciting TV. Will the most “talented” chef be the person who takes home the big $150K prize? Probably not. But we’ll certainly enjoy playing armchair traveler and watching them try.