Monday, July 16, 2007

Food on TV

I've always found myself sucked into food shows. As a little girl, my favorite was the Galloping Gourmet. I thought Graham Kerr was so suave and flirtatious and he made cooking seem like such fun. Later on, I was a fan of the late Frugal Gourmet, whose enthusiasm for Chinese food made it look easy enough that I could cook it myself. Madeleine Kamman and Pierre Franey had annoying French accents, but Mom and I were glued to the TV when they were whipping up country French or seafood dishes while shilling their cookbooks on PBS. And of course, there was the inimitable Julia Child.

With the advent of the Food Network in the 90s, I was introduced to a whole new bunch of television cooks, particularly Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. Eventually Emeril's act wore thin when I started to notice him making lots of verbal mistakes. If he didn't know what he was talking about, I certainly wouldn't give him any more of my attention (a particularly bad meal at Emeril's in New Orleans didn't help matters). But back in those days, most of the shows were about meal preparation and starred chefly folks who not only had personality but also real food knowledge, like Ming Tsai and David Rosengarten.

It seems that the Food Network has changed in recent years, aiming nearly all of its programming towards people who have neither time to cook nor creativity, or eat all their meals in restaurants. Overexposed hacks like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee extol the virtues of 30 minute meals and doctoring convenience foods, and just about everyone on the network has his or her own version of a show in which they travel the country, eating stuff other people cooked. Do we really need to see Rachael stuffing her ample mouth with cheap food (that even she admits doesn't always taste as good as she pretends it does)? How about the Deen boys? Giada? Even Alton Brown has gotten into the act, driving his motorcycle around the country and eating road food. Sigh. What happened to actual cooking shows? It shouldn't take a presumably instructional television show to know how open a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and dump a jar of salsa on it, and I'm sure it tastes as crappy as I imagine it does, Sandra Lee. And not everything tastes better with a cup of mayo in it, Paula Deen. Which leads to an if-Carrie-Bradshaw-were-a-food-writer kind of thought:

Has actual cooking with fresh ingredients become something shameful?

Apart from the always-entertaining Iron Chef (in either the original Japanese or new American format), the only other show I regularly watch on the Food Network is The Next Food Network Star. For the third season in a row, they've lined up a bunch of poor saps vying for the unenviable position of hosting a cooking show that will air either early on a Sunday morning or in the wee hours of the night. Unlike the past two seasons, however, this one copies some elements from Bravo's Top Chef. No longer do the contestants have individual apartments; they share a space with bunkbeds and a judges room on the first level. Few of the challenges involved being on camera - odd that, since the goal of the competition is a show, not a restaurant. And the challenges seemed more...challenging. Interesting too. Can't say the same for the contestants. It was easy to see that the final three would be Amy, Joshua (a.k.a JAG), and Gummy. I mean...Rory. They seemed to not only have cooking chops but also some personality. Others had one or the other...or neither...and were eliminated without further ado.

Amy is my favorite of the three. She brings a bit of gourmet to her cooking, like a downmarket Ina Garten. Her Gourmet Next Door theme might actually be closer to a flat-chested Nigella Lawson - a working mother who isn't afraid of exotic ingredients with foreign-sounding names. JAG was my second favorite contestant, although I knew he probably wasn't the ideal Food Network personality. He seemed a bit too serious, too into the actual cooking. He would be better on Top Chef. Alas, he lied about both his military service and his culinary credentials and removed himself from competition. It's a shame he was so insecure he needed to invent his past. I wish him well for the future. He's still so young, and he has great potential in the kitchen. Rory isn't my favorite, but she would do well on TVFN. She's got a bold personality and could probably be trained to cook for the lowest common denominator or eat other people's food. We'll see who the voters pick next week.