Netflix’s Pressure Cooker is one of those shows whose concept immediately calls to mind a boardroom full of suits. “People love reality competition shows,” a man in a Brooks Brothers jacket might say, “... and I’ve also noticed they love cooking shows!”
Et voilà! Say hello to our latest cooking competition show, a mash-up of Top Chef and Big Brother, with a splash of The Circle’s chaos thrown in for good measure. Billed as the “first-ever house reality cooking competition,” Pressure Cooker invites 11 professional chefs to battle it out for a $100,000 cash prize, while also cohabitating with their competition. There is no host, and there are no judges; instead, these chefs are here to judge one another across eight 45-minute episodes. No pressure!
Some facets of this concept are innovative, and others feel like thinly veiled cost-savers. Why pay a host, for instance, when you can swap in a ticket printer with instructions instead?
One could say the same about asking contestants to work double duty and rank one another’s food, but that little twist actually does produce some zesty gamesmanship. In fact, the degree to which one enjoys Pressure Cooker might be directly proportional to your interest in one or the other side of its equation. Those hoping to slurp down a deliciously messy competition will likely leave satisfied, but anyone who comes to this show for the cooking might just wind up writing a nasty Yelp review.
There’s a nice mixture of backgrounds in the Pressure Cooker; players cover the map both personally and professionally. Some are private chefs, while others own restaurants. Some are bubbly in personality, while others are more reserved. Some love to serve up heavy, decadent dishes, while others prefer a fresher palate. (In one heated moment, a contestant scorches his competitor with the observation, “He’s done raw food twice!”) Another chef consistently professes his passion for making what he calls “fancy food.” Alliances form, and alliances break, and everyone in the game must constantly decide how best to make their decisions: on talent, threat level, or social impressions.
Another twist holding the chefs’ feet to the fire? Much like The Circle, which loves to torture its contestants with new elimination mechanics, Pressure Cooker constantly switches things up. In one round, the chefs rate one another’s dishes and must subsequently eliminate the face behind one of the three lowest-ranked plates. In another, the chefs must make their judgments based on a blind taste. Later on, eliminated chefs return to judge their former foes’ creations, also with a blind taste test. It’s a mess, and intentionally so—a gambit that, again, will likely titillate some viewers and frustrate others.
Each chef appears to have a slightly different value system in this game. Jeana Marie Pecha, one of the younger chefs, works to stir things up in the house from the jump—forming alliances to which she only half-commits. Others, like Robbie Jester, play (and cook) from the heart. Two of the chefs, Sergei Nicholas Simonov and Caroline Gutierrez, form something of a “work husband/work wife” dynamic and quickly become a power block within the show. Although the competition can be cutthroat, the series also finds moments to peel back layers on some of its key players. Pecha, who mostly seems like a wily game player in the beginning, deepens as a character later on, as she discusses being placed in foster care as a teenager, setting out for Mexico at the age of 17, and developing a passion for the country’s cuisine.
Ironically enough, the most questionable component of Pressure Cooker can often be the cooking itself. There are some seriously talented chefs in the bunch, but as the competition comes to a full boil, it can be hard not to feel like some of the extra bells and whistles are meant to cover up some blah technique overall. The winner (which we will not spoil here) is a somewhat predictable choice by the end, a conclusion that’s both emotionally satisfying and somehow underwhelming. It might take a little more simmering to get all of Pressure Cooker’s elements to meld just right, but on the whole, this dish has potential.