When I heard the title "Fat Chef" (Thurs. 10 p.m. ET, Food Network) at first I thought it might be the latest addition to Adult Swim's programming block or something new from Seth MacFarlane. When I realized it was a reality show, I assumed it was going to involve the usual weight loss TV tropes -- humiliating Spandex workout gear, teary-eyed confessions, weird challenges and possibly an angry trainer who screams a lot. "Fat Chef" hits some of those marks (you can only color so far outside of the lines with a reality TV show), but to its credit, it doesn't live up to its cheesy title.
Where this show differs from "The Biggest Loser" and other weight loss shows is in the premise -- these aren't just people who want to lose weight, but chefs who want to lose weight. While it's no cakewalk for anyone to shed pounds, it seems like it must be a special kind of hell for someone to be surrounded by rich food (I'm guessing most of these chefs don't work at health food restaurants) all day.
Plus, if we've learned anything from "Top Chef," "Hell's Kitchen" and the like, it's that being a chef is a high stress job that rarely allows time for water cooler chit chat (but, seemingly, lots of time for cigarette breaks). Add to that the issue the complication that these are usually people who love food so much that they wanted to make it their livelihood. This isn't a question of telling someone to put down the Ding-Dong and hit the treadmill -- it's a matter of making each dieter reassess their greatest passion. As one chef says, "It's like an alcoholic living in a liquor store."
Not surprisingly, the chefs on the show seem to be plagued by cravings -- good steaks, salted caramel ice cream, gooey side dishes and so on. The problem, of course, is they can't toss these items from their refrigerators and move on but must instead face down their demons in the workplace. Needless to say, the show features its fair share of meltdowns and, yes, less-than-successes. When Kimberly makes her final weigh in, she falls far short of her initial goal despite her determination in putting a happy face on the situation. Disappointing, yes, but probably an outcome that will ring true to more than a few yo-yo dieters watching at home.
Fortunately, there's no cloying host or shrieking trainer to pull confessions out of our chefs. Other than a voice-over narration and specialists who seem more nurturing than dictatorial, there's little effort (at least that we see) to push our chefs to the brink of sanity. Instead, the reasons why our chefs eat to excess usually tumble out more organically -- and when the chef in question doesn't want to blurt out every detail of his or her personal life, there's no pushback. During one episode, Kimberly admits her childhood was traumatic -- but refuses to give details. Her trainer responds like a human being instead of a ratings whore and does the only logical thing -- he offers words of comfort and a hug. It may not be titilating, but it's refreshing.
It is, of course, ironic that the Food Network would program any show about the ill effects of excessive eating, and unsurprisingly "Fat Chef" is sandwiched between series that probably feature a fair amount of decadent deliciousness (at 9 p.m. is the chef competition show "Chopped" and at 11 p.m. is "Cupcake Wars."). Whether viewers will gobble up the chance to watch marginally obese people sweating and denying themselves when they really want to scribble down a recipe for buttercream frosting is anyone's guess. But, like a tiny oasis of sushi-grade salmon and celery sticks, "Fat Chef" may be a very nice palate cleanser.