There are a couple of ingredients you need to make any good cooking competition show on TV. But it seems if you aren’t a part of the Food Network or named Gordon Ramsay or Tom Colicchio, you may struggle to find them in your pantry.
The first is a twist that makes you different from the rest, and On the Menu, TNT’s first foray into the food world, has got a pretty good one. Each episode, four home cooks battle out in three rounds of competition for a $25,000 prize, but their dish is immediately featured on the menu of some of the country’s biggest chain restaurants. The day after their episode airs, the chef’s winning dish will be available for viewers to actually taste. Though it claims to be the first show to let the audience interact this way, that’s not really true. NBC unsuccessfully tried a similar idea with America’s Next Great Restaurant, but the three start-up locations for the winning idea closed within two months of opening. TNT is smart to align itself with some big names in the food industry like Chili’s, Denny’s and Outback Steakhouse to legitimize the entire show and end results.
The second ingredient is a great host who knows what they are talking about. Ty Pennington has left the home makeovers to focus solely on the kitchen and though he does a serviceable job, he definitely has a love-him-or-hate-him type of personality. Luckily, TNT has also racked up legendary Chef Emeril Lagasse to serve as a mentor-like figure for the home cooks. Not only did Lagasse arguably help create the idea of the celebrity chef (without which a show like this would never really exists) but one of his own restaurants is one of the 10 taking on a new menu item.
The problem is, the premise is a lot more promising than the show itself. If you squint your eyes just enough, it’ll look like you’re just watching another episode of Chopped or Cutthroat Kitchen on the Food Network. The three rounds begin with the cooks being challenged to recreate a famous item already on the menu for that week’s respective restaurant executives. In the Chili’s premiere, it was guacamole. Restaurant executives choose which three move on to the next round, where they each get their first chance to make their personal menu item within some sort of small guideline (they are tasked with making a burger for Chili’s). Another unique angle On the Menu has against some of the other cooking shows is how the next round is judged, bringing in everyday patrons and customers to taste and pick their favorite dish. You still get a lot of the forced “I’m on TV so it must be good” answers and reactions, but additional hidden cameras add both a comedic and informative level of observation for the executives, who don’t actually get to eat the item just yet. They have to wait to the third round, where the final two cooks take the customer’s comments and refine their dish before one final taste.
On the Menu adds some unique flavor to the food competition genre of reality TV with a prize that really can’t be won anywhere else. Will it entice you enough to actually get off your couch and into one of these restaurants to taste the winning dish? Probably not. I’m not sure how anyone will even be able to find the wining dish from The Cheesecake Factory episode in that massive encyclopedia of a menu. But the show freshens up an otherwise staling genre of TV, and for foodies and others who naturally like to eat with their eyes, On the Menu is definitely one to put on the DVR at least.