Food Network Challenge: A Very Special Olympics

Lately I’ve become obsessed with Food Network Challenge, a televised weekly food battle that features bravado, trash-talking and excessive compensation–it’s like professional sports, only without the fan face-painting and cheesy halftime shenanigans.

The challenges run the gamut, from best burgers to top tailgate fare, but I’ve found that I’m particularly enamored by the cake-related ones, partly because of the unabashed absurdity that forms the underpinnings of these “contests,” and partly because sexy cake decorator Jason Ellis doesn’t appear on Food Network Challenge: Chili Cookoff or Food Network Challenge: Extreme BBQ.  Ellis is as hilarious and charming as he is cute; it’s an irresistible combination.  Here’s proof of his good looks:

How you doin'?

How you doin'?

Of course, he’s also gay (as far as I know) which means it could never happen between us.  The 2,000 mile geographical separation as well as the fact that we don’t even know each other might also be factors that would keep us apart, but as you’ll see, Food Network doesn’t bother to consider reality when it creates these competitions, so I don’t see why I should be bound by such constraints when I’m tuning in to ogle the competitors.

Depending on how you feel about totally feigned competition scenarios, Food Network Challenge is either God’s gift to competitive cooking or an absolute abomination.  As I mention above, Food Network does not traffic in reality, which is why–after three plus years of coming up with these challenges–the network’s creative directors, having found the well of new ideas to be running dry, have begun to sip instead from the well of  “What the…?”

Take, for example, Food Network Challenge: Triplets Birthday Cake.  In this particular episode, the decorators were told to create a cake for three fraternal triplets who were turning sixteen, the challenge being that, to create such a cake, the decorators would have to create something that appealed flavor-wise to each triplet, and design the decor in such a way as to reflect the hopes, dreams, passions and fave color schemes of the birthday boys and girl.

That alone seems–to the uninitiated–a significant enough challenge (Ooh–one triplet loves yellow, while another hates it–how will the bakers pull this off?), but those of us more familiar with “Challenge” (as the host and contestants refer to it) know that a task that simple would be…well…a piece of cake in Food Network land. “Oh, c’mon now,” we scoff, “Where’s the ‘challenge’ in that?”

Fortunately, there was a fly in the buttercream, and it came late in the game, as the decorators were putting what they thought were the finishing touches on their cakes.  The three teen judges dropped in with some unfortunate news.  Turns out the cakes were all so spectacular that the teens could never choose one over the other.  And so together they decided the way to solve this confectionery conundrum was to tell the competitors that a four-foot tall cake reflecting the interests and tastes of each teen alone just wouldn’t cut it in this competition.

[Triplets to cake decorators]: Since we can’t choose between your cakes, each of you will need to come up with a name for our film company [that is, the triplets non-existent film company] and design a logo for it.  Then you will need to somehow, like, incorporate the name and logo into the cake, and then we’ll make our decision based on which name and logo we like best, and how well you work it into the cake.

[Jay to triplets]: You’ve got to be kidding me.

[Jay to triplets, translation]: Are you effing kidding me?

In the end, the prize went to Norman, another familiar face at Challenge, who tearfully admitted he won it for his father, who had passed away before Norman started competing on the FNC circuit.  Norman’s a sweetie, and good for him and all.  But let’s look at Jason again.

How yooooooooouuuuu doin'?

How yooooooooouuuuu doin'?

OK, so, the whole, “Design a logo and come up with our film company name” thing was contrived enough, and yet it’s nowhere near as ridiculous as Food Network Challenge: Blind Date Cakes.  Remember the show, “The Dating Game”?  Conjure up your memories of that and cross them with the Pillsbury Bake-off, and you’ve got the basic idea.  The show began with three very anxious bachelors seated behind a screen.  They asked questions of a bachelorette, and after the q & a, the bachelors were paired with pastry chefs who created and decorated cakes for the woman based on the information the men had gleaned during their brief conversation with her at the beginning of the show.  Once the cakes were completed, the woman chose her favorite; the suitor who helped create the winning cake then came out from offstage, and off the two went on a “fantasy” date.

As you might imagine, cakes proved an unreliable method for matching a potential couple.  While the winning cake seemed to incorporate everything the bachelorette liked (and I mean everything–the effect was that of one’s life passing before her eyes…on a rotating cake pedestal), the bachelor on the other hand…not so much.  It was a little like watching Martha Stewart being sent on a date with Jesse Ventura.  Somehow, you just don’t see it working out.

It’s odd enough to watch cake decorators craft a multi-tiered homage to a woman they’ve never met using ideas from a man who has also never met the woman in question, but what might be even more ridiculous is to go on an all-expense-paid Carnival cruise to the Bahamas, return from the cruise, make a cake to commemorate the experience, and take home $10,000 for doing an especially good job. But that’s just what happened recently on Food Network Challenge: Fantasy Vacation Cakes. While people continue to lose their homes, jobs, and life savings, Food Network is evidently financially viable enough to send four cake decorators on a cruise to the Bahamas–and on top of that award $10,000 to one of them just for baking the best cruise-themed cake. True, the trip likely didn’t cost Food Network very much; the episode was an obvious shill for Carnival Cruises that even the thick sheets of fondant and the giant, gold, edible seahorses that donned the winning cake could not conceal–but it was still a bit shocking to see so much money being thrown around for a televised cake decorating competition in which the winning cake would not even be featured at a specific event.

Jason Ellis was competing though, so of course I watched.  Unfortunately, his cake–and cake stand, actually–fell apart, and thus he lost this challenge.  But the episode still yielded some fascinating bits of insight, not the least of which was that the Challenge newbie in this episode–a bubbly blond who specializes in the kinds of sleek, elegant cakes favored by people who think that $20,000 is “just what a wedding costs these days”–revealed that one of her favorite parts of the cruise was that each day, the stewards would replace the guest towels with clean towels folded into the shape of a dog’s face.  She liked this detail so much that she had one of the stewards teach her how to fold the towels this way, and then incorporated that element into her cake.

An all-expense-paid cruise to the Bahamas, with snorkeling, swimming, and drinks with umbrellas, and yet the highlight for this woman essentially involved folding laundry.

The winning cake–a tacky, overly-decorated mish-mash of sparkly decorations (including sugar beads designed to emulate the Carnival chandeliers and a set of huge edible seahorses finished in culinary-grade gold leafing)–was all the more undeserving of $10,000 because, in addition to its gaudy showiness, the cake’s decorator insisted on referring to her decorations as “bling,” a transgression that should have not only prevented her from winning, but disqualified her from even competing.

But alas, fairness or logic don’t always have a place at the judges’ table in Challenge, and why should they, being they are also optional ingredients in each contest’s premise–ingredients that the Food Network believes should be used sparingly, if at all.  As long as Jason Ellis remains on the show’s menu of competitors, however, I’ll keep watching, no matter how ridiculous the challenge.  If it were up to me, that next competition would be Food Network Challenge: Bathing Suit Sweets, in which the competitors would construct their cakes while wearing only their swimsuits and a smile.  And any contestant whose body or cake was adorned with “bling” would be immediately removed from the premises and forced to go on a blind date with an aunt or uncle of the birthday triplets.  That sounds contrived and illogical, which is why I think there’s real hope I’ll see it on Food Network soon.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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