Culinary Showdown 1: Hell's Kitchen vs. Top Chef
This week, the fourth season of Hell's Kitchen had its premiere episode, filled with exactly what you would expect from Hell's Kitchen: Gordon Ramsay getting apoplectic and a bunch of chefs – some with seemingly questionable skills or judgment – running around in panic in his kitchen.

The fourth season of Top Chef is already four episodes in, and it would appear that the two shows share some of the same audience. While they are, ostensibly, about the same subject, they are quite different shows, as many of us noted in the comments for the first Hell's Kitchen recap. How do these two shows stack up against each other?

Each week, we'll be comparing the week's episode, but for this week, I'll also be comparing the shows from what we've seen through the previous seasons as well as the most recent episode.

As to the Bravo show, Top Chef has seemed to corner the market on the upscale foodie world. The show has famous chefs from some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country as guest stars, an editor of Food and Wine as a judge, and airs on a cable network, i.e., something you have to pay to get.

And it's not just any cable network, it's Bravo. Bravo might base a lot of its programming on reality television, but it also bases a lot of its reality programming on, quite frankly, money. Project Runway brings in guest judges from pricey brands, the Real Housewives of New York and Real Housewives of Orange County are shows about people whose hobbies include casually dropping thousands on shopping trips. The network is geared towards portraying that (as Tyra Banks often says about high fashion modeling) “aspirational” lifestyle.

Top Chef is no different. Even though this week's episode was about something completely relatable to most everyone – the movies – this wasn't about making the best nachos or hot dogs with which to enjoy your favorite flick. Per usual, the focus was on who could impress the refined palates of the judges. What I found funny was that the non-food people – critic Richard Roeper in particular – maybe for once brought in the voice of the “guy on the street,” when he protested that Nikki Cascone's and Jennifer Biesty's pasta dish was perfectly tasty and much better than the judges were making it out to be.

There is absolutely no doubt that Gordon Ramsay is just as focused on the quality of the food as are the judges of Top Chef. If anything, that's what ultimately redeems the show. Sure, his screaming fits are entertaining; it's always thrilling to see someone be so incandescent with rage yet still able to pull out an articulate insult. But if the viewers didn't sense his true dedication to quality food behind it, and sense that he is completely and utterly in service to the perfect dish of food, they would probably not continue to stick around after the first or second season.

What is so frustrating, for me, about Hell's Kitchen, is that for some bizarre reason, despite Ramsay's serious attitude towards food, he still allows himself to be part of silly stunts like being put into a prosthetic nose and ratty old-skool Howard Stern wig to spy on the contestants.

It's a lowbrow gimmick, and, quite frankly, a little baffling. I'm not above the lowbrow, after all: I write about reality television. But in this situation, it just seems out of place from a man like Ramsay and I actually find it a little depressing. He said in a New Yorker profile once that he does TV to finance his restaurants (he said he never would have been able to open a place in Manhattan without it), but I just can't make sense of why he agrees to some of the hack-y elements of this show.

What I also don't like about those stunts is it's a little insulting to the viewer, as though we need more than the actual action of the show to keep us entertained. Because there is one thing that Hell's Kitchen definitely has over Top Chef: it shows us how incredibly difficult it is to put out consistently top-quality cuisine in a professional kitchen.

The Top Chef contestants might have more flash with the creativity the challenges encourage them to display, and certainly execution and timing are crucial. Hell's Kitchen, though, really shows the viewer what it's like not just to make a delicious plate of scallops, but how challenging it is to make them over and over and how one little hiccup in the line can affect how good that dish can be.

Ramsay first garnered some television attention for the Boiling Point documentaries about his kitchen. These were actual documentaries – not reality shows – and I think that shows that people are interested enough in what “naturally” occurs in the professional kitchen that a lot of the cheesy elements of Hell's Kitchen are superfluous.

But it's hard to imagine that Fox will dial back on them for this season of Hell's Kitchen, so expect to see more of the – as one of our commenters noted – Big Brother elements on the show this season. And no matter what I might think about it, Hell's Kitchen still has an audience, so maybe more people are watching because of the gimmicks, rather than in spite of them.

Heading into their fourth seasons, both Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen have seemed to find a formula they plan to stick with, so we'll continue to check back and see how they compare as they progress.

What do you think?

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Images courtesy of Bravo and Fox)