Combine your favorite elements of cooking competition shows like "Top Chef" or "MasterChef" and combine them with the worldwide scope of a show like "The Amazing Race" and you essentially have the new Bravo reality offering, "Around the World in 80 Plates." Hosted by chef/author/entrepreneur Curtis Stone and chef/author (as well as first and only female Iron Chef on "Iron Chef America") Cat Cora, the weekly series takes 12 culinary contestants to different countries where each of them must get to know culture, customs and cuisines and actually cook food with the ever-present ticking clock.
Our Jim Halterman sat down with Stone and Cora in Pasadena at the Langham Hotel during a recent NBC Summer Press Day to find out the inner workings of the show, some of the surprises viewers will see and who of the new crop of contestants should we keep our eyes on in the course of the season.
Jim Halterman: So how do you describe the show? It's a hybrid of a lot of other shows out there.
Curtis Stone: It's like a love child of the 'Amazing Race' and 'Top Chef'...
Cat Cora: It's like if you breed all three of those shows you get that. That's exactly what pops out. When you think about you can't get any new fresh concepts in a culinary competition, Bravo came up with something, once again, something fresh and new. And it does have all of those combinations. You have the elimination of 'Survivor,' and you have them dropping contestants down in a foreign country and giving them some money and some resources to cook their way out of it. And they've got to take over a restaurant in 24 hours and learn the local cuisine, and regional not just an overall Italian cuisine or Spanish but the region specifically. And cook for the local diners the next day. And so it's got all of those wonderful ingredients if you will.
JH: Since the show is new, I'm guessing that the contestants didn't know what to expect in the format or even with each other, right?
CS: I think that this show in particular is very hard for the chefs to feel each other out because there's one thing to watch somebody else in the kitchen, and even that can be challenging because you can watch them use a knife and think, 'Yeah, not so fast.' But then they have other skills because of the style of cooking that they do. They have to feel each other out as chefs. And then, some of them have traveled extensively, some of them never left their hometown, some speak four languages, some barely speak English. Some people have real street smarts, too, which, of course, in this show when you are trying to bolt across town can be extremely important. And how quickly you can absorb information and then spill it all back out the next day when you have taken over the restaurant? It's a big challenge. But it was really fascinating watching the season progress and see your alliances begin.
JH: From the first episode, it seems like the contestants have to have other skills outside of cooking because they are doing a lot of other things. Like they had to go on a pub-crawl and drink beer during the first competition!
Cat Cora: Oh yeah, they have to have negotiation skills. They have to have strategy skills. They have to have multitasking skills and organizational skills. I mean you have to have a multitude of skills to win this competition and to even get further on in the competition. So it's not just a matter of being a good cook. You have to have, and as we go on into other countries, even language skills come into play. So yeah they have to have a multitude of skills to further in the competition.
JH: I was thinking that the chefs that probably are drinkers might have an advantage because when they are drinking those yards of beer... I've had a yard of beer and it's a lot!
CC: It's a lot. I don't know how they did it. I mean I really don't. But they did. They managed to do it.
CS: London was the first stop, the first episode up. And I can remember filming it and thinking, 'Oh I hope people don't watch this show and think it's all about drinking beer and racing across town because it's absolutely not.' It's very closely linked. In Thailand they were planting rice and rice patties. So many different things. It was really very, very special to be a part of it.
JH: What did you both learn doing the show? I'm guessing you were exposed to parts of the world that maybe you have not spent a lot of time in.
CC: In Argentina really spending time with the asadors, the cooks who work with these whole goats on these skewers that are on these large glassed in ovens, wood burning ovens. And seeing the street vendors in Thailand with the papaya salads and different herbs and the techniques that they are using to cook. I think there are so many things that we picked up and learned as chefs. And just absorbing that was great.
JH: Is it safe to assume that once they get to the countries where there is no English happening around them that, that's going to really amp up the complications and maybe the drama?
CC: Because they are trying to literally use their resources to move about the city to get different ingredients and different things that they need to cook and really make this dinner successful, and this meal successful, and take this restaurant over. So obviously they need the language skills. And it's really about, again strategy, using the language skills the best they know how and all of their resources to make it.
JH: Now the exceptional ingredient that everybody wants to get in each episode, is it always exceptional? Because I thought, 'What if they get it and it's cayenne pepper or something that's really not going to be helpful?' Or is it always a plus?
CS: I'll tell you what. There's not a city that we went to that you and I wouldn't have been like, 'Oh, I wish I had that if I was in this competition.'
CC: I think it was always a plus. I think you always had to be able to use it to the best of your ability. I think that it was always an exceptional ingredient. And whether you knew it at the time or not, I think it always became something you really, really depended on.
JH: Are you both glad that you are not the ones eliminating people, that they have to eliminate each other?
CS: Cat and I got to be really positive influences on the [contestants] both on and off camera. And we got to give them encouragement and we handled that award of most valuable chef in each episode, which won them immunity or some form of prize. So it was sort of more an encouraging role than, 'You are stupid and you did that wrong, and now you are going home.'
CC: And I think it makes the show better. I think for them to really work out and strategize who is our biggest competition or who is our weakest link? And it really makes the show more interesting for them to decide who, because they are the ones that cooked with them. We weren't in the kitchen with them. So I think overall, that's what makes the show even more interesting.
JH: The claws start coming out in the first episode. Were you two surprised at how competitive people got right off the bat?
CC: Oh yeah. It got very heated and we got surprised at who, and the different people who, kind of came out and started swinging. So it gets interesting who you are not really expecting to come out and who their targets were. So that gets really super interesting in the show.
JH: Who would you say viewers should keep an eye on?
CS: Chef Sai [Pituk] is someone who I found really fascinating. She's like a very tough cookie, but spoke a big game. Jenna [Johansen] was a huge personality as well.
CC: Chaz [Brown].
CS: It's fascinating because you get a group of people together and you task them with something [and] there's usually someone who sort of steps it up and takes that authoritative role. But when [there are] many of them who try to do that, then you get quite a few squabbling over that leadership. And then underneath that you also get people standing back, but then they start getting a bit more not manipulative but strategic, I think, is the word to do it.
"Around the World in 80 Plates" airs Wednesdays at 10:00/9:00c on Bravo.