a satisfying return of the job interview competition – reality blurred

It’s been four years since the 14th and likely final season of Food Network Star aired, and a year since HGTV’s Design Star returned and then disappeared despite offering a terrific reinvention of the format.

At their core, they’re talent competitions like Top Chef, but with the added twist of the contestants auditioning for on-camera jobs. They have to demonstrate creativity and personality.

That process produced major personalities for their respective networks, including David Bromstad and, of course, Guy Fieri, so it’s too bad they haven’t continued, although Food Network basically uses its competitions to find new personalities.

America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation (Fridays, Freevee and Amazon Prime Video) has brought the format back.

I’m wasn’t overly familiar with America’s Test Kitchen or its personalities, but it predates the reality TV-ification of Food Network and HGTV.

The company’s mission is to “help curious cooks become confident cooks,” which it does through its TV show (which premiered on public television in 2001), magazines, its website, and cookbooks.

America’s Test Kitchen is now adding reality TV to that list with a competition to find its next personality, and which has the potential to be a strong successor to Design Star and Food Network Star, despite a few frustrating missteps in the first episode.

The contestants of America's Test Kitchen: The Next Generation in the ATK's kitchen set during the first episode
The contestants of America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation in the ATK’s kitchen set during the first episode (Photo by Joseph Keller/Amazon Freevee)

The winner of America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation gets a significant prize: “becoming the newest face of America’s Test Kitchen,” plus “the opportunity to write their own cookbook” and $100,000 in cash.

The 11 contestants are home cooks whose day jobs range from pharmacist to social media content creator, and it’s somewhat refreshing that their cooking and plating suggests they are actual amateurs.

They’re all agreeable and talented, and seem like they could be a Great British Bake-Off cast.

They’re being tested in the same working test kitchen space in Boston now used by the show, and it’s a remarkable location, bathed in natural light from large windows along one wall. That immediately differentiates it from the glaring studio lighting of other competitions.

The judging, in particular, works as both critique and education, which makes sense because the judges include America’s Test Kitchen personalities Dan Souza, Elle Simone Scott, Jack Bishop, and Julia Collin Davison.

They’re sometimes joined by guest judge such as Top Chef California contestant—and James Beard award-winner—Karen Akunowicz. Future guest judges include Claudette Zepeda, Kwame Onwuachi, Jamie Bissonnette, and MasterChef’s Nick DiGiovanni.

America's Test Kitchen host Jeannie Mai Jenkins tastes a contestant's food
America’s Test Kitchen host Jeannie Mai Jenkins tastes a contestant’s food (Photo by Patrick Daly/Amazon Freevee)

Host Jeannie Mai Jenkins has more to do here as host than she does as Holey Moley’s sideline reporter, and brings not only her bountiful enthusiasm and good cheer, but a clear understanding of how to interact with contestants who are working without distracting or annoying them. (The Great British Bake-Off producers, please take note!)

While I absolutely welcome a show that’s being delivered in actual weekly episodes, the first episode opens with two “tell us who you are on a plate” challenges that are bizarrely indistinguishable from each other, yet they get equal weight.

At 50 minutes, it’s a lot of the same—same space, same people, same thing, same problems.

Then, after an entire episode of telegraphing exactly who is going home, because they and their screw-ups get most of the focus, the judges/producers make a disappointing decision, despite the attempt to thematically link it to America’s Test Kitchen‘s mission.

Amazon Studios provided the first two episodes to TV critics, and I wish both episodes would have dropped as the premiere.

That’s because the second episode is immediately an improvement, with a creative first challenge, The Task, that asks them to deconstruct and recreate a dish. (They don’t get splattered with the ingredients, alas.) The second challenge is a simple, familiar challenge—a dish from a given technique and ingredient—but also works well.

The season preview shows on-camera and presentation challenges, but those aren’t in the first two episodes, alas.

The competition is not without minor drama, like people struggling with the clock, not seasoning their food enough, or boiling oil over on a gas stove. A familiar chef from the first episode totally misunderstands the second-episode’s first challenge, because of course he does.

Despite that, America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation is on trend by being a very feel-good and supportive competition, with the bonus of subtle but welcome information about food and cooking techniques. It’s a welcome successor to its predecessors in the talent reality competition/job interview genre.

America’s Test Kitchen: Next Generation

America’s Test Kitchen: Next Generation has the potential to be a strong successor to Design Star and Food Network Star, despite a few frustrating missteps in the first episode. B

What works for me:

  • The set, and using ATK’s actual space
  • The judges’ mix of critique and helpful information
  • Jeannie Mai Jenkins’ hosting

What could be better:

  • A better mix of challenges in the first two episodes
  • Skipping that episode-one twist