July 07, 2011

A Nod to the Originals...The TV Chefs Who Started It All

I recently posted a story on twitter, about the evolution of what is now referred to as the genre; Food TV. Obviously, when you read that phrase, if you are a foodie, you immediately think: Food Network, Top Chef, and the 1000's of 'clone' reality cooking competition shows that we are now being inundated with. Ok,  I exaggerate but, it sure seems that way, even to me, a so called 'foodie.' Now don't get me wrong, I and the James Beard Foundation agree that there are still actual quality 'cooking' shows out there such as this years award winning Eric Ripert's, Avec Eric. And that comes to the basis of my thoughts today.

Before the Food Network changed the palate of America, and frankly, the world, (...it's for you decide for yourself if that change is for the good, or for the bad. As for me, while I do believe that the influence Food TV now brings is more negative than positive, it did not start out that way. Though in my opinion, the positives are fewer, they have, however, been such influential positives that they probably outweigh the impact of the negatives...) most of our food information came from the food companies themselves.

A few decades ago, the culinary landscape (at least on TV here in America) changed forever with these 11 simple words, spoken in a voice full of culinary wonder and passion many have imitated......but few have mastered......"Hello everyone, I'm Julia Child and welcome to 'The French Kitchen."

With the broadcast of that show, Julia, truly started "Food TV. Then joined with another Original, Jacques Pepin, she brought us the award-winning 1999 PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, which  was honored with a Daytime Emmy in 2001. Others were spawned, some just as notable, such as: The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr, The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith. Wok with Yan with Martin Yan  and don't forget Justin E. Wilson who taught us Cajun with "I gar-on-tee!" long before we were 'bammed' about the head and shoulders with essence untill we bled to death...

And friends...THEY spawned the culinary passion of the aspiring chefs who are today's 'culinary icons.' Not just the ones we see on TV today, who rarely cook anymore, but the countless unsung line chefs and sous chefs and pastry chefs and on and on and on, who anonymously, gladly and sometimes, thanklessly (ask a chef his first thought when he sees a plate return to the kitchen..) tire in a kitchen unseen, to bring you art on a plate.

Now, let's back up...while I say most TV chefs do not cook anymore, I further contend, they have succumbed to a celebrity life that is no longer driven by the food, but by 'network's' needs and goals. Worries include things like drives for ratings, advertising and competing for air time with other stations and chefs for market share. The food? That's now just the vehicle on which this new industry rides. I do not begrudge these former chefs anything. But, some have lost site that for foodies, and for them once, food wasn't a vehicle to celebrity, it was the celebrity...and they were passionate showcasing about IT. Now it seems, they spend most of their time showcasing themselves.

I challenge them to question what their passion is now. That's not to say I'm a hypocrite as I completely understand. If you threw $150,000 at me to show up at an event for two hours, cook something flashy in a pan...make it flame so the crown goes 'oo, ahh,' then sign a few autographs...I'd probably take the gig too. For them, (not all)) to be where they are is a credit to them...and to the passion for the FOOD that drove them to the excellence that garnered the attention they initially received from the food community. I would argue though, that some, not all, have actually changed careers.

While they were once in the kitchen 80 hours a week, earning their stripes as 'chef', doing Friday night covers, or the early Theater Push...on the line of their own, sometimes 'self named' restaurants, they are now "TV Personalities who used to chef." Folks, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. Good for them. I enjoy their food and lots of their greatest hits from the PAST where I actually got to witness their passion for food while watching them, just them and just the food. They taught me about kale...or making bread, or'grillin'..or fenugreek, or Mother Sauces...Like the Originals...

Ask chefs on the line why they chef?.. (and don't forget that cheffing is a 'service'...in the 'hospitality' industry... where others happiness is the key ingredient..) they'll tell you it's about that look on a persons' face when they take that first bite...the pleasure of knowing that this thing, this dish you just created, is making people happy...The Originals knew that.....they weren't about ratings...or "who's the best cook on a given day with these ingredients...Ready Go!!! , now buy our cookbooks, aprons, pots,  pans...yada yada yada" ...

Look, I actually like some Food TV. I had alot of 'cooking heros' on the tube..(in some cases that ended immediately when actually I met them and reality did not match the completely BS TV persona.....) and Food TV is directly responsible for my current culinary predilection. But, The Originals..... and some who are still doing 'a cooking show' for the right reasons, are the staying, last connection to my type of  'foodie' point of view. The same point of view The Originals had:  a simple love and passion for the food........and sharing that love with others. Period.

The numbing of Food TV........by the glut of so called 'culinary shows' that are no more than staged cooking competitions cloned over and over again, with pretty food, and the newest 'panel ' of celebrity judges of folks who used to cook but are now professional tasters, along with the contrived drama........is starting to become an insult to actual, passionate foodies. For these shows and for some of these chefs, passion for ratings, celebrity and the latest way to hook the viewer, has surpassed passion for the actual food, the Original reason we all tuned in. It is that same mis-guided passion that explains....
~Why we are starting to tune out;
~Why most Michelin acclaimed chefs are rarely seen on TV;
~Why Michelin Stars are rare;
 ~Why James Beard Foundation awards are so coveted and go to the 'traditional shows,' like Avec Eric

So in conclusion dear readers..let us try something tried true and oh wait, I know..

"Back in the Box....it's the new 'outside the box"...:

'As opposed to shows being about the network...or the chef....or dare I say, one chef dissing the other in those little intimate,  just you, me, the chef, the camera only shots they let us in on... sigh.............I say it's time for Food TV to get back to being about..... wait for it.........THE FOOD!!!

Long Live The Originals...

Bon Appetit!


1 comment:

  1. Curtis Stone is an example of what you describe. I can't see that he does anything which isn't on tv or specifically shows him being able to cook.

    Food Channel has greatly moved away from explanation of why things cook the way they do and the techniques involved in cooking as they did in the early years. You're really not going to learn how to cook watching their shows, but just how to execute a specific recipe.

    Fact is, PBS is still the best forum for learning how to cook and why things cook in the way that they do.

    Great post!