When cooking became cut-throat: A brief history of the culinary competition

Our collective hunger for cooking as sport is an enduring mainstay, from Medieval Baghdad to modern cable TV

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 13, 2022 5:50PM (EDT)

Chef in apron holding meat knife and delicious grilled ribs on wooden stump (Getty Images/LightFieldStudios)
Chef in apron holding meat knife and delicious grilled ribs on wooden stump (Getty Images/LightFieldStudios)

I have something to confess: There are times — especially as my pantry and refrigerator look a little bare (and infinitely less inspiring) at the end of the week — when the only way I can motivate myself to make dinner instead of ordering delivery is by turning cooking into a game

Actually, it's more of a competition than a game. Inevitably, I launch into a one-woman version of "Chopped," the Food Network competition program that has come to dominate the network since first airing in 2009. 

If for some reason you haven't found yourself watching cable food TV in an anxiety-driven fugue state from the hours of 8 p.m. to midnight at some point over the last few years, here's a primer to the show. Four chefs or enthusiastic home cooks from a particular background — ranging from a subset of the restaurant world to professions like cafeteria workers and firehouse cooks — are presented with a "Chopped" basket. 

Inside is a set of disparate ingredients from which the competing chefs are asked to make a cohesive dish. This continues for three 20- to 30-minute rounds, which are typically divided into appetizer, entrée and dessert categories. The contestants are judged on attributes such as flavor, presentation and how they leverage the "mystery ingredients." At the end of each round, someone is eliminated. Cue Ted Allen's signature line, "You've been chopped!"

When I've played at home, there have been some successes, including a play on Italian milk-braised pork served over rice. I pulled it together using a hunk of frozen pork loin, cilantro and coconut milk. There have also been some dishes I probably would not make again — like an incredibly thick soup made with leftover refried beans and pico de gallo — but it's all been more worthwhile than takeout. 

I'll admit it's a little ridiculous that it takes the threat of an imaginary competition for me to get dinner on the table, but I recently realized why it just makes sense. After all, culinary competitions are an enduring mainstay in our culture, but what are the origins of cooking as sport?

It turns out that one of the first recorded instances of a cooking competition took place in Medieval Baghdad, more than 1,000 years before the very first episode of "Chopped" aired. 

In "Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchen," the 10-century cookbook (originally titled "Kit̄̄̄̄̄̄̄̄āb al-ṭabīkh") that was translated by Iraqi food historian and scholar Nawal Nasrallah, there's the story of a culinary face-off between the caliph al-Maʾmūn and his brother, al-Muʿtaṣim. Each had a series of companions assisting them. al-Ma' mūn's companion was a cook named Ibāda, who was known for having "a delightful and mischievous sense of humor." 

"The story goes that al-Ma' mūn was in the mood for a cooking contest," Nasrallah wrote. "He ordered that meat, vegetables and the like be brought in . . . Ibāda noticed that al-Muʿtaṣim's pot was emitting pleasant aromas that dominated all others, which made him feel jealous of him." 

So, in a classic case of kitchen sabotage, Ibāda provided some "professional advice," suggesting that al-Ma' mūn add some fermented sauce to his pot. "Al-Muʿtaṣim did so, and soon enough some foul smells came out of his pot, for which al-Muʿtaṣim rebuked him saying, 'Don't you know that adding a dead body into a living thing would spoil it?'" 

Talk about a cutthroat kitchen. 

The years passed before al-Muʿtaṣim became caliph, the sting of that lost competition remained. He eventually exiled Ibāda, saying it wasn't worth killing him. The next caliph restored Ibāda as royal cook for a period of time, before also banishing him for some mischief (the exact type of which was lost to history), only for him to be restored yet again. He must have been quite the cook. 

It's obvious that our collective hunger for viewing culinary excellence through a competitive lens is an enduring mainstay, from ancient Baghdad to modern cable TV, with no sign of being satiated anytime soon.

Over time, there have been other notable cooking contests, but such competitions were truly cemented as a global entertainment phenomenon in the late 21st century. In 1983, the Bocuse d'Or, a biennial world chef championship, was established in Lyon, France. In 1991, the very first James Beard Foundation Awards — often called the "Oscars of the food world" — were awarded; the first recipients included Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse and Nancy Silverton

Two years later, the same year that the Food Network debuted stateside, Japan launched "Iron Chef," which would forever change the landscape of food TV. In the decades since, Food Network's programming has steadily shifted towards a competition-dominated schedule. As The Atlantic reported, the primetime shows with the most viewers on the network in 2000 were "Iron Chef," "Emeril Live," "FoodNation with Bobby Flay," "Food Finds" and "Good Eats." 

In 2014, they were "Food Network Star," "Worst Cooks in America," "Chopped Tournament," "Cutthroat Kitchen" and "Guy's Grocery Games." As of today, "Chopped" has run 635 episodes, in addition to 39 specials.

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That cultural shift is mirrored off-screen. For example, earlier this week, the story of a Virginia woman who swept the cooking categories at her county fair went viral online. NPR's Ailsa Chang reported that Linda Skeens "won first, second and third place for best cookies. She also swept all three awards for candy and for savory bread. In fact, she won the blue ribbon for cake, pie, brownie, sweet bread and best overall baked good. That was strawberry fudge." 

That same day, I stumbled upon a company called Culinary Fight Club, which is "a national organization that hosts live cooking competitions in 29 states" and uses the hashtag #FoodSport in its advertising. 

It's obvious that our collective hunger for viewing culinary excellence through a competitive lens is an enduring mainstay, from ancient Baghdad to modern cable TV, with no sign of being satiated anytime soon. 

Read more

at the intersection of food and TV

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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