Food for Thought

Cooking competitions represent some of the biggest formats in the world—Banijay’s MasterChef alone is in 70 markets globally. The culinary space is pretty crowded now, with many other shows attempting to replicate the success of the MasterChefs and The Great Bake Offs of the world. But how does one make a competition that both stands out in an oversaturated arena but is also good enough to stand beside the others in key slots?

“Key to all new formats is their having a singular point of view and tone that is entirely their own, and this is especially true if you’re broadcasting shows from the same genre,” says John Hesling, executive VP and head of FOX Alternative Entertainment, which has a wide slate of culinary formats, including Kitchen NightmaresNext Level Chef and Crime Scene Kitchen.

It is imperative that each new culinary competition brings its own unique elements to the table. “Crime Scene Kitchen looks and feels very different to other competition formats like Next Level ChefMasterChef or Hell’s Kitchen,” Hesling notes. “It takes itself less seriously and embraces the eccentricity of the whole premise of the show.”

In the FOX series, bakers must decode what type of dessert was made based on the crumbs and flour trails left behind in the kitchen. They must then re-create the recipe for celebrity judges, who determine how closely the bakers’ dishes match the missing dessert. This competition based around hunting for clues also engages viewers, as they can play along with the sleuthing.

Izzet Pinto, founder and CEO of Global Agency, agrees that each new format introduced in a popular genre must have a distinctive element. “For example, a rotating kitchen is the distinctive element in The Rolling Kitchen,” he explains. Two couples compete to create dishes on a stage that rotates 180 degrees every ten minutes. The contest “requires mental agility, flexibility and a cool head in a race against time.”

Incorporating “everyday,” untrained people into the series is another way to help these formats stand out and feel more relatable to viewers.

SIPUR and Heroes Formats teamed up for SUPERmarketCHEF, which sees home cooks recruited at neighborhood supermarkets travel to a shiny floor to compete in cooking a dish with ingredients they purchased at the store. “When you see regular people, you see ordinary ingredients, and you see people that a lot of times you wouldn’t see in cooking shows because they are not aiming to be a master chef,” explains Zipi Rozenblum, head of unscripted formats at SIPUR. But “they are the best cook in their whole neighborhood.”

When you turn on a cooking show with trained chefs, the ingredients they cook with are often very expensive, “and a lot of families cannot buy these high-end materials,” Rozenblum notes. “Not only that, [but] you need to have a very high skill in order to make the dishes. So, we try to create escapism [with SUPERmarketCHEF], but escapism that is affordable for everybody. When you watch the show, you celebrate simple things. This is how it’s different from other cooking shows. You celebrate the chicken soup that your mother used to cook you when you were sick.”

Uprising Kitchen, from Global Agency, also brings in relatively untrained contestants, with a housewife and a novice competing against a first-class chef, who faces challenges to even out the playing field. “The show offers a new twist on cooking shows by pitting a top chef against a housewife celeb and an amateur cooking celeb,” Pinto says. “This creates an interesting dynamic and makes the competition more exciting.”

Amid increasingly tumultuous economic conditions, these types of culinary formats are ripe for modifications in order to fit different territories’ and broadcasters’ budgets. For one, cooking competitions are often “open to sponsorships, so this is a situation that whets the appetite of advertisers,” Pinto says.

“A big part of [SUPERmarketCHEF] is to be branded,” Rozenblum notes. “We need the supermarket in order to film the show.” Various chains could serve as sponsors for the series in different regions, easing any squeeze on budgets.

FOX Alternative Entertainment’s Hesling names other various factors that can be tweaked for different budgets: set size, varying the number of contestants, mixing up the skill level of the hosts and judges, stripping down the show and more.

Rozenblum concurs. “If you have a big territory, build a shiny floor,” for SUPERmarketCHEF. “If you have a smaller territory, don’t do that. Go to the biggest brand of [supermarket], build ten small kitchens in that place and film on location. You can do that. It will still tell the same story.”

There are plenty of other opportunities to gain brand sponsorships and ease the burden on budgets as well, especially if you think slightly outside of the box. “Normally, we drive to the supermarket,” notes Pavel Cherepin, co-founder of Heroes Formats. “So, it’s maybe time to present some automotive brands. It’s time to promote new features, [like] how you can open a trunk when your hands are full, [and then] laugh about how you come out of the supermarket with full hands when you enter [it with the goal of] buying one package of milk.”

This ability to tailor these types of shows for varying budgets underscores Cherepin’s declaration that “the time for formats as formats has passed. Now, it’s time for formats as solutions. It’s [time for] formats as multiplatform, multilayered content solutions for any types and any means of broadcasting.”

This includes the ability to broadcast the formats in various time slots, depending on broadcasters’ needs.

Hesling notes that “globally, [cooking formats] tend to be in access, daytime or daily strip. This changed markedly with MasterChef, which was one of the first cooking competition shows to get into prime time because Gordon Ramsay is such a massive talent, and the format is bulletproof. Since MasterChef paved the way, other cooking competitions have flourished in prime time, including Next Level ChefHell’s Kitchen and The Great British Bake Off, to name a few. MasterChef is the perfect example of a show that started out in daytime/access and moved into prime time by structuring the format tightly and increasing the number of contestants, modifying the size of the set and adding big-name judges alongside Gordon Ramsay.”

Though Global Agency’s cooking formats tend to be for daytime slots, Pinto agrees that modifying parts of the format can easily allow it to move to prime time, such as having celebrities join as contestants or judges.

Although the formats arena is already chock full of culinary competitions, and it might seem daunting to pitch a brand-new one, producers shouldn’t be hesitant to try their hand at it. “A crowded space means everybody wants to watch it,” SIPUR’s Rozenblum points out.