Have you ever been sad that you’ve binge-watched the last episode of your favorite cooking show? Tell me you’ve never rooted for someone you hated to get cut from a show. Have you ever watched a cooking show and screamed, “Why is this on TV?!” I’m sure you’ve said yes to all of these, and your emotions fuel great TV. All reality cooking shows are scripted, but only a few of them don’t feel like they are.
If you take the time to ask people what makes their favorite reality cooking show the best on TV, you’ll find out that it’s a tossup. One person’s failed dessert is another’s deconstructed masterpiece. What I’m saying is there are many things that make a cooking show incredible and others passé.
What makes an incredible reality cooking show? Do they have to be serious and dedicated to the craft? What about over-the-top shows that don’t take themselves seriously but maintain food integrity? Ultimately, what makes a reality cooking show incredible or too scripted boils down to taste.
Typically, cooking shows can be categorized as information based (teaching you how to cook) and competition based (featuring contestants competing for a cash prize). No matter the category, some cooking shows innovate and inform. The others only rely on tactics to stir up drama and leave the food as an afterthought. Whether you love highbrow, lowbrow, or middle-of-the-road cooking shows, there's something for everyone. Let’s take look at 10 incredible reality cooking shows and 10 that are too scripted to be real.
20 MasterChef - Scripted
This show isn’t that bad, but MasterChef is produced down to a polished show that's full of drama. The lowdown from a “survivor” of MasterChef says that contestants prepare a signature dish that's graded by cooking school judges in secret, and then if they're chosen, they fill out a bunch of paperwork to create a backstory for the people who join the show.
Contestants agree to pay a 15% management fee to Gordon Ramsay, and the wranglers create drama by putting people with opposing views in rooms together to stir up drama come show time, and viewers reap the benefits of choosing sides during the show.
19 Bizarre Foods/Bizarre Foods America - Incredible
While these are some of older shows on this list, Bizarre Foods and Bizarre Foods America were amazing to watch. Both shows followed the host, James Beard Foundation Award winner Andrew Zimmern, across the globe as he tasted foods from other cultures that people may see as “Bizarre.” The incredible thing about Bizarre Foods was that it introduced viewers not only to new foods; it also was educational about cultural differences that brings us all together.
If Bizarre Foods wasn’t enough, he came back with Bizarre Foods America and brought viewers to places all over America to explore cultural foods that people never came across.
18 Iron Chef America - Scripted
This isn't a bad show. In fact, the original Iron Chef show in Japan probably birthed the cooking competition wave we have today. Iron Chef America is popular, but there are obviously things that make this show scripted. With over 127 crew members and 800 pounds of food for each episode, this show takes a lot to make it look good.
When the show starts, everyone already knows who the contender is for that episode, the chairman is an actor (though this should be common knowledge), and they know about the secret ingredient ahead of time, so there are no surprises.
17 Nailed It! - Incredible
Do you want to laugh? Do you want to watch people struggle for dear life to produce decent desserts? Do you love Nicole Byer? If you said yes, then Netflix’s Nailed It! is the perfect show for you. Amateur bakers are expected to create intricate cakes and sweets from a model, and it's quite often a flop.
What’s incredible about this show is the fact that everyone involved is aware that this show is a gimmick—and not in a bad way. Everyone is in on the joke that each competitor is extremely bad at baking, and it makes us, the viewers, comfortable with watching the show and cheering for our favorite contestant to “Nail It.”
16 Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives - Scripted
The season two winner of Food Network Star, Guy Fieri, takes viewers across America and presents down-to-earth food that people don’t typically stop and try. Great idea, right? But does Guy Fieri love all the food he tries? Try as he might, the smiles and the declaration of love to a dish aren’t always what they seem. This doesn’t mean he's faking how much he loves certain dishes, but it does mean his reactions are scripted to help the restaurant save face.
Fieri himself says that there’s food he's less thrilled with, and the people who participate on the show can tell.
15 Sugar Rush - Incredible
Sugar Rush is everything viewers will love about a “serious” baking competition. Judges Candace Nelson, Adriano Zumbo, and a guest critique four teams through three rounds, and the team that wins receives $10,000. Teams rush to complete their bakes each round and the quicker they complete it, the more time they bank for their final round (if they make it).
In each episode, contestants make wild and crazy masterpieces that really show their style. It’s incredible how vibrant their creations are, and 3D cakes are a must. It always fascinating to see what creative flavors they come up with to wow the judges and what misses the mark.
14 Cupcake Wars - Scripted
What the show is hiding from its viewers makes for good TV but isn’t honest. Do you really think that Cupcake Wars is completely unscripted? Well, think again.
The biggest thing about Cupcake wars is that people on that show learn what the ingredients are months in advance. That’s pretty scripted, and the show presents ingredient reveals as if the contestants don’t know this coming into the competition. They also can practice what they're making ahead of time, and according to Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, displays are already premade by carpenters, and the contestants bake less than half of the final 1,000 cupcakes.
13 Cutthroat Kitchen - Incredible
The first Alton Brown show on this list is Cutthroat Kitchen. Contestants try to outcook each other by sabotaging their competitors with tortuous mechanisms and dazzling mind tricks. With $25,000 in hand, each participant (if they so choose) can spend their money ruining their competitors’ chance to leave as the winner and with the money that’s left in hand.
The show ended in 2017, but it was grand and had a lot of memorable contraptions and unforgettable people. Interested in one of the best representations of how evil this show can be to its contestants? Then check out the Evilicious Tournament that has 16 of the best of the best fighting for $50,000 dollars.
12 Restaurant Impossible - Scripted
Canceled in 2016, the show itself wasn’t a huge problem; it was the aftermath that followed. After Robert Irvine’s help, many restaurants that went through Restaurant Impossible’s transformation changed their restaurants back to remain loyal to their original customers. What most restaurants changed were their restaurant layout and the food. Restaurants in the Midwest were particularly the ones who changed their ingredients, menus, and layout the most.
Typically, their customers were very traditional and were used to the way things used to be, so the changes alienated the few customers they had left. It’s also reported that Irvine left some restaurants in the lurch after those changes.
11 Emeril Live - Incredible
One of the oldest shows on this list, Emeril Live was a huge staple in many households. With Emeril Lagasse’s catchphrases like “Kick it up a notch,” “Oh, yeah babe,” and his most famous, “Bam!” he taught viewers how to make good food by embracing spice and cooking techniques that other people could try.
Emeril had everything a viewer could want: a live audience, a live band, and a slew of celebrity friends that he would amaze with his charm and his cooking style. Even though Emeril Live was canceled in 2007, his show proved there were no tricks involved—just pure, educational cooking.
10 Worst Cooks in America - Scripted
Amateur cooks and a whole lot of messy cooking is what you’ll get watching this show. The biggest problem is that it's hard to believe that someone is that awful at cooking. Can someone burn things? Yes, of course. But having a problem opening a can with a can opener or minor plating is just too hard to believe. Unlike Nailed It, this show makes it hard for viewers to truly enjoy this program because it feels so scripted.
The goal is to evoke outrage from viewers online. Fortunately, there are many other shows on TV that don’t embarrass people who want to learn cooking basics.
9 Chopped - Incredible
Action packed and full of dramatic music, Chopped is a staple of the food competition game. What makes this show incredible is chefs must abide by the 20-minute and 30-minute time limit given to them. Contestants are expected to develop delicious meals with the ingredients given to them, and unfortunately, some of those items are less than savory.
What’s also great about this show is the producers don’t want contestants to have it easy, so if you ever questioned why there’s one ice cream machine, thank them. The judges have a hand in the process as well. If they happen to believe a basket is too difficult, they’ll work together to change the ingredients, but it's rare since the basket is chosen very carefully.
8 Beat Bobby Flay - Scripted
Yes, Bobby Flay can cook. But is he truly that great of a chef that he beats most of the contestants on the show? After watching numerous episodes, usually, he'll lose if paired against a chef that cooks Asian cuisine, specifically Indian or Japanese food. But it seems the key to his success is the producers knowing about the signature dish of the contestants ahead of time.
It's a pretty convincing argument, considering judges are decided in advance (probably to fit either of the potential competitors' cooking style). This means that Bobby will know something about the chefs in advance. Just think about it: why aren't there desserts on that show?
7 Final Table - Incredible
The newbie show on this list is one of the most extensive because it's an international competition where each incredible team cooks fine-dining cuisines from around the world.
Considering that elimination rounds are the bread and butter of cooking competitions, that isn’t what makes this show incredible. What's incredible is that during the last elimination round, the food that’s produced looks as if it should be plastered all over food magazines. Their food is beautiful, and the emphasis is on international cooking, and that makes this show special. It’s a level of detail you don’t see in a lot of cooking competitions.
6 Throwdown with Bobby Flay - Scripted
This is the second show on the list with Bobby Flay. Throwdown with Bobby Flay used secretive tactics to “surprise” his competition. Flay had producers show up to smaller restaurants and say they were doing a "profile" on the restaurant, and then in came Bobby.
This entire show's premise is exactly like Beat Bobby Flay. Flay challenged chefs each episode and let them know that he could cook their dishes better than they could. Chefs would act surprised that Bobby showed up to their restaurants when there were already a whole camera crew and a crowd of people in the restaurant. Earlier episodes of the show could've been real, but after a few, the setup wasn’t believable anymore.
5 Good Eats/Good Eats Reloaded - Incredible
Oh, let's count the ways Good Eats is incredible. This show single-handedly inspired people to look at food as a science, and we were all made better for it. Good Eats ran from 1999-2012 with Alton Brown taking viewers on a journey to create the perfect dish inside of your own home. What makes this entry incredible is its emphasis on comfort food. Yes, Alton could dazzle you with the science of food in fine dining, but his humble and informative approach enticed viewers to learn how to cook.
The Good Eats franchise isn't over; Good Eats Reloaded is currently on the Cooking Channel where Alton is revamping some of his outdated recipes with new techniques for the new age.
4 Hell's Kitchen - Scripted
Entertaining? Yes. Super scripted? Also, yes. Hell’s Kitchen has been on TV for 18 seasons, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The setup of men vs. women, the music, the made-up drama, and the yelling isn’t all that interesting anymore when there’s an abundance of cooking shows that focus on fine dining and are much nicer to the contestants.
If you ever want to understand just how scripted this show is, watch one of several episodes available (or try season 18 since it's the latest) and watch how the producers set up the protagonist and antagonist within the first three minutes of the show. This set up will always show viewers who, good or bad, is going to be the focus of the episode.
3 Top Chef - Incredible
This show is what some foodies consider as the quintessential reality cooking show, and Top Chef takes cooking to a whole other level.
Following highly trained chefs each week, this show prides itself on making intricate, high-quality, and Michelin Star-level dishes ready to serve to famous chef friends Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and semi-new addition Graham Elliot. Through quickfire and elimination challenges and the intense Last Chance Kitchen, this Emmy-winning show continues to provide viewers with chefs’ perspectives inside the industry. What makes the show truly incredible is its ability to stay relevant by educating and entertaining viewers about food.
Interested in watching one action-packed season? Try season six. Why? Two words: Voltaggio Brothers. You’ll thank me later.
2 Kitchen Nightmares - Scripted
Kitchen Nightmares was one of Ramsay’s worst shows ever. It had its fair share of problems when it was on the air. Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, AZ decided to pursue legal action against Ramsay because they claimed he made up a plot to create TV drama. Amy's Baking Company believed producers wanted to create fictional stories when none existed.
Producers had a hand in fabricating plotlines, and there was nothing the participants of the show could do to stop producers from making things up. Another participant of the show said a cook had been hired days before as a suggestion of the producers, and that chef dropped food on the floor to paint the restaurant as poorly run.
1 The Big Food Truck Tip - Incredible
The Big Food Truck Tip on the Food Network follows Andrew Zimmern as he searches for food truck owners who are on the move and provide delicious food to everyone who's willing to give their food a chance. What Zimmern’s doing is bringing viewers into the world of mobile food, which isn’t something widely explored on cooking shows.
What makes this show so great is it highlights small businesses looking to get their business off the ground. Owners discuss their food perspective, and when they share their stories, they have the chance to earn a $10,000 “tip” to help them get their business to the next level.