My original interest in the genre began before I could fry an egg, back when I was living in NYC and Bobby Flay had not yet sunk his ginger claws into the Iron Chef franchise. (He was instead busy grilling things and using ancho chiles in everything with Jackie Maloof on Food Network.)
In those days, Iron Chef was not the macho American show it is now. It was only shown, untranslated from the original Japanese, exclusively on Sinovision TV. Although Poppa Trix and I couldn't understand what anyone was saying, we found it irresistible to stay up into the wee hours to watch the members of the kitchen army scramble for the secret ingredient unveiled by the bizarre Chairman Kaga - would it be wiggling octopus? lobster? sea urchin? - and then create a multi course feast using said ingredient. Even though we often had no idea what was happening, the visual language of food was enough to tell a story of sorts.
Soon after, Food Network acquired rights to the show and dubbed it in English, and Poppa Trix and I would watch, nearly as confused as before, yet fascinated with the voices used to dub chefs Morimoto (Iron Chef Japanese), Chen (Iron Chef Chinese), and the motley assortment of judges - usually consisting of some combination of imperious food critic, giggling Japanese actress, and circumspect fortuneteller. (I later interviewed Morimoto and learned that he is in fact much more soft spoken, shy, and polite than his rather dastardly-sounding dubbed voice would lead one to believe.)
Looking back, those were such innocent times as far as the cooking competition genre goes.
Soon this quirky and entirely original production would give way to an army of increasingly generic offshoots, until the culinary competition viewing landscape we have now was forged - Chopped, Master Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Top Chef, Just Desserts, et al.
I freely admit that I quite liked the early seasons of Top Chef, almost to the point of addiction. I found it easy to give myself over to the fiction that these chefs were doing something Important and Thrilling; that they were equal parts bad ass and artist. And besides, the cooking challenges seemed fresh and original, and many of the resulting dishes were downright inspired.
But soon, as things tend to do, innovation gave way to cliche; creativity to tired tropes. I think my breaking point may have been the Reynolds Wrap foil challenge in this past season of Top Chef. Or maybe it was the umpteenth time that one of the cheftestants pretended to spontaneously remark upon the impressive legroom in the Toyota (or whatever sponsor it was) that was ferrying them from point A to point B.
Or perhaps the whole myth of the chef-as-rockstar is just plain tired. It's just cooking, after all. Isn't it?
And so, you may be wondering by now - what does all this have to do with risotto?
Risotto is also the savory Achilles heel for so many chefs on these shows. A contestant will opine that others have been sent home for attempting it, but of course they will suffer no such fate. Then, they mess it up (it's too sticky, too al dente, too mushy, too salty, not salty enough, and never, ever, just right) and that's the end for them. If it weren't such a boring and predictable convention, it would almost be interesting.
But still ... just as I will inevitably tune in for next season of Top Chef, if for nothing else than to see what new variation of the pantsuit/romper Padma will wear, I will always come back to risotto.
If you have read this far, I assume you know how to make risotto. Or that you know how to Google how to make risotto. So I will simply tell you what humble bits I brought to the basic formula: an entire head of roasted garlic stirred into the finished product, along with a whole head of seared cauliflower on the top and a smattering of crispy green onion.
It was exactly what I wanted; nothing more, nothing less.
It's just cooking, after all, and sometimes that's really all it needs to be.