My obsession with food television

Julia Sweeney (after Michele Bachmann, she’s gotten the most props in this blog) once called the Food Network porn for foodies. The idea is, like porn, you switch on the television (or nowadays, it’d be a computer) and watch other people cook for each other.

I’ve been a fan of cooking television ever since I was a kid and watched The Frugul Gourmet with Jeff Smith – you remember Jeff Smith, or the “Frug” – he was the tall, spectacled-gray haired guy with the apron. When I was a kid I loved how easy the cooking seemed to be. Sometimes he had Elmo from Sesame Street which was a treat. Thinking about it now, the title seemed to be oxymoronic – he would talk about exotic ingredients that he happened upon during one of his moutain climbing expeditions in Tibet; he never just used regular white button mushrooms. Still, he was so charming about his concept, that I would overlook the fact that a lot of what he cooked would probably be near-impossible for me to duplicate. Later of course, Smith’s career imploded after allegations of sexual abuse when he was a minister.

The Food Network employed chefs like MTV employed VJ’s. It wasn’t enough that they knew how to cook – in fact, some of them don’t even know how to do that. As long as they looked good on camera, and sold some kind of schtick, the audiences would eat it up (pun intended). There is of course the pantheon of Food Network babes: Giada De Laurentiis, Rachael Ray, Nigella Lawson, Sandra Lee, Ingrid Hoffmann, Ellie Kreiger – gorgeous women who could moonlight as supermodels; women also get to look at eye candy as well: Jamie Oliver, Tyler Florence and Michael Chiarello.

But good looks aren’t everything – like the stripper in Gypsy said, you gotta have a gimmick. Guy Fieri’s shock of bleached blond hair, coupled with his deafeningly loud shirts and his rockabilly approach to cooking makes him a viewer favorite; then there’s the tastefully elegant Ina Garten who lives  an enviably wealthy and outree life; Paula Deen the jolly matron of Southern cooking who thumbs her nose at pesky details like calories, obesity or cholestoral when designing recipes that mainly feature butter or oil.

And now along with Food Network, Bravo’s entered the fray with Top Chef – a sort of America’s Next Top Model or American Idol only for up-and-coming chefs. I’ve become engrossed in the exploits of these wannabe Julia Childs as they compete for great prizes, cooking for a panel of judges pattered after the iconic trio of AI. Just like Simon Cowell who be deliciously malicious on the singing competition, Top Chef would also employ some catty commentator to throw out a quip (and if it comes from someone with a British accent, all the better).

I watched a couple Top Chefs over the past two weeks – specifically one season that took place in Las Vegas and another season that was called Top Chef Masters and pitted established cooking superstars – some of whom host TV shows of their own – against each other for a cooking prize. On the one hand, I love watching the show, but I also got to see the carefully rehearsed and polished TV chefs lose their cool. And to be honest it was kind of disappointing.

Most people who watched Top Chef Masters know I’m talking about Michael Chiarello. It’s official I can’t watch his show anymore without thinking about his boorish behavior. Before, he was this nice guy who lived in the Napa Valley and through wonderful dinner parties, and was just so genial about the whole thing. On Top Chef Masters, Chiarello came off as pompous, arrogant and a little priggish – this happened in an episode when the master chefs were told to choose from a panel of former Top Chef contestants to be their sous chefs for a challenge. Chiarello instantly set the tone for his team by conducting the interviews as scavenger hunts for difficult-to-find items. Then he would tersley ask the chefs, “what’s my name?” At first, most of the chefs would say, “Michael.” But then some assumed he was quizzing them on his possibly-difficult to pronounce name. But that wasn’t it, either. He was only satisfied when some of the contestants copped on answered, “Chef.” Then there was a whole business with a sous chef from another team taking over a fridge that Chiarello allegedly “called.” He condescendingly kept referring to the other chef as “young man,” which of course annoyed the guy and the two had words. In the confessional, Chiarello huffed that in his day, he would eat three  chefs like that “for breakfast.”

Also another favorite Food Network personality of mine, Alton Brown – host of the geeky Good Eats – also apparently has a personality issue. Now, unlike in the case of Chiarello, I can’t vouch for sure that Brown – the appealingly nerdy guy who explained the science of cooking for laymen – is a nightmare, but after I did some Google searching I found some distressing anecdotes, including a blog in which during a personal appearance, Brown layed some eggs with racist and homophobic one-liners. Again, I don’t know this to be true and it might not be – actually, I’m hoping it might not be, because I’ve amassed a small library just of his show alone.

Along with testy personalities, I have an issue with Sandra Lee, the quasi-first lady of New York slash quasi chef who does something called semi-homemade. The premise is you buy packets of things or canned things throw them together with a vegetable or two and voila you got dinner on the table. She’s infamous on the Internet for a particularly offensive Kwanzaa cake (that has gray icing). It’s funny because her approach to cooking is very lazy, but then you see her cocktail recipes or tablescapes and they’re so complicated and involved, they make the invasion of Normandy seem like a chance meeting.

Still, I love the Food Network because its stable of stars delight in something I love: food. But as much as Food Network is important to my viewing habits, nothing will replace my love for PBS.

Ah, PBS – cooking shows without flashy glamor shot of deep-cleaveged ladies licking frosting off their fingers, or of fratboy guys leaping off motorcycles and throwing Flintstones-style steaks on a Habachi. Instead we have the cuddly, Lidia Bastianich, the Croatian-born Italian chef is refreshingly down-to-earth and subdued. Her recipes are fantastic and authentic without seeming fussy or trendy.

Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook is also utterly delightful. His English is not-so-great (sometimes subtitles would’ve been helpful), but he was so enthusiastic about sharing his love of Chinese cooking, that you couldn’t help but be pulled in. And as an added bonus, he’d go to China a lot and film from the street markets. Some may find his act a bit minstrel and there’s a bit of that, to be honest (though it’s not like he’s Mickey Rooney from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but his overall affection for his craft is definitely engaging and infectious.

And because I like Good Eats I also love America’s Test Kitchen (I collect the DVD’s). Like with Jeff Smith’s recipes – the stuff on this show isn’t all that straight-forward to cook. But the host, Christopher Kimball along with the other chefs make up for it with their humorous presentations. And the food does look pretty amazing in the end.

Along with its amazing cooking shows, PBS has other fantastic shows, and responsible viewers should consider supporting their local public television station. Okay, plug over.

Coupled with my love of cooking shows, I’ve got collections of food literature and cook books. I find food to be a way to express affection and love (I know, a cliche, and not a particularly healthy one). Even “bad” food shows – like extensive resume of the hyperactive Rachael Ray – are enjoyable and I’ll find something useful watching them (if nothing else, I’ll learn what to avoid). Of course at the end of the day no one can touch Julia Child’s shows – her brilliant show brought the occasionally intimidating and fussy concept of French cooking to American audiences. She did it with style, humor and a great lack of pretention. She was able to assemble some pretty incredible stuff like a souffle or coq au vin and make it seem like she was making a grilled cheese sandwich.

So what kind of television programming do you like? What sort of thing do you like having on in the background that gives your house a nice cozy glow?



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Filed under commentary, cooking, DVD, Nonfiction, Television

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