Adam Liaw: What not to do on a TV cooking show

Adam Liaw
Adam Liaw: Here's what not to do in TV-land kitchens.
Adam Liaw: Here's what not to do in TV-land kitchens.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

When it comes to cooking shows, I've done just about all there is to do. I've been a reality TV contestant, I've hosted my own show, I've cooked in some of the weirdest places imaginable, and I've been filmed eating everywhere from three-Michelin-starred restaurants to cheeky holes-in-the-wall.

When it comes to TV and cooking there's a lot to love, but there are also a few things that every cooking show gets wrong.

1. Making outdoor cooking look fun

Cooking outdoors is both very spectacular, and the worst thing in the world. The most picturesque locations are usually the most remote and that's not great when you have to bring everything with you, including the kitchen sink. On Destination Flavour I've lugged hundreds of kilos of gear up cliff faces, and at the top realised that any wind stronger than a gentle breeze renders a gas stove completely useless. I've stood on frozen lakes for hours trying to boil water until I lost sensation in my feet, and gotten sunstroke making fish and chips on a salt pan in the height of summer. I can't even imagine the number of reality contestants who have been sent home just by drawing the windward-side burner on an outdoor challenge.

2. Crying

We all know the scene. A petrified contestant awaits a verdict before a group of po-faced judges. The news isn't good, and tears well in the cook's eyes as they grovellingly apologise for their failure. I've been there, but I've also been in my own kitchen when one of my children disapproves of something I've cooked for them, and I can tell you that any tears or apologies are far more likely to come from the person eating than from the cook. I've never met a cooking-show judge I didn't like, but just once I'd like to see a contestant demand that they finish everything on their plate AND say "thank you" AND take their plate to the sink when they are done. Now, that would be "reality TV".

A snap from his new show Destination Flavour: Singapore.
A snap from his new show Destination Flavour: Singapore.  Photo: Tan Zexun

3. Ending the scene just before the most important part

The climax in any cooking show is the glamorous "hero shot" of a finished plate of immaculate food on a spotless bench that has been cleaned by magical elves. For most of us, however, that's not how cooking works. If that plate of food took five cutting boards, 10 mixing bowls and 15 pans to cook, then that's important information I need to know before I even think about cooking it. Every cooking show should be required by law to show you five minutes of the host washing up as the credits roll.

4. Calling food by home cooks "restaurant quality"

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Every time I hear a cooking competition judge call a contestant's food "restaurant quality" I wonder whether it's intended as a compliment, or a slap in the face. I think we all know that for every fantastic, jaw-dropping meal out there's one that sends a customer straight to TripAdvisor with tears in their eyes and hate in their heart. I'm not knocking the restaurant industry here, but I can think of dozens of home cooks whose meals I'd prefer to eat than a lot of bad-to-average restaurants I've been to.

5. Running everywhere

There was an epiphany moment when I was on MasterChef when my fellow contestants and I realised that running everywhere was a little weird. We ran from cars into kitchens, out of kitchens, around kitchens, anywhere and everywhere, which is ironic considering that most of a person's time as a reality TV contestant is spent sitting around doing not very much in particular. Sure, gives television an exciting sense of urgency but really – what's with all the running?

Adam Liaw says outdoor cooking isn't as glamorous as you'd think.
Adam Liaw says outdoor cooking isn't as glamorous as you'd think. 

6. Science, generally

I swear, if one more cooking show tells me to sear my steaks to "seal in the juices", or to flambe a pan to "burn off all the alcohol" I'm going to set fire to my television. Cooking shows are full of bad science. Searing steaks doesn't seal in any juices, a flambe only burns off about 30 per cent of the alcohol you've added, and I could list a dozen more old wives' tales for cooking that are still rolled out by cooking shows despite being debunked years ago. Thankfully, though, bad science doesn't necessarily mean bad cooking – searing a steak to a brown crust will make it taste better, and a flambe will remove an unpleasant alcoholic burn – but just don't go believing everything you hear on TV.

7. The English language

National guide cover. Adam Liaw. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 19th Dec 2016.
National guide cover. Adam Liaw. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 19th Dec 2016. Photo: Edwina Pickles

I get that language is fluid, but for the love of God let's be reasonable here. "Hero" is not a verb, "unctuous" is not a word to describe a pleasant thing, and a "cook" is a person. Even in the ubiquitous "plate-up", the inclusion of "-up" does nothing to improve on just saying "plate".

Destination Flavour: Singapore premieres on SBS on Thursday, January 12, 8pm