Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cooking and Reality TV–Some Constructive Feedback for the Food Network


The title of this post was revised several times – each progressively more reserved.  The first draft was something along the lines of “WTF are you thinking?”  My blood pressure rose to this level while watching an entertaining and wonderful retrospective on the evolution of Food Network covering it’s full history all the way back to the launch in November of 1993.  While reliving the challenges and inexperience of the first shows, I was shocked back into the present with the speed of Bobby Flay’s knife as I watched a commercial for the soon to debut Food Network show “Extreme Chef” featuring contestants challenged with creating an award winning dish with a Swiss Army knife, while fending off rattlesnakes and armed guerillas in the Mountains of Colombia. 

I suddenly realized that one of my favorite networks (ok, it doesn’t take much to make my top ten – I only watch sports and cooking shows) was sliding into the deep fryer with no life jacket.  Back in the day (I think it was a Wednesday) I watched HGTV.  I enjoyed the practical advice, the craftsmanship of people like Norm Abrams, and wonderful restorations such as those featured on “This Old House.”  However, at some point, HGTV dove into the deep end of an empty pool while shooting itself in the foot with a nail gun and committed most of it’s programming to reality based shows - we now have to endure more mind numbing crap than is legally permissible in most states.  I don’t care about the personal relationships of some dysfunctional group of house flippers.  I don’t care that you can descend on a home with 1000 people and turn it into another Disney ride in one week.  HGTV is the fast food of what used to be true craftsmanship.  And now I am afraid that the Food Network will commit a fatal seasoning error by becoming the fast food of, uh, food channels.

I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming earlier.  With the addition of shows like Chopped (and all it’s orphans), Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars (a whole different set of issues for me…sorry, you can keep your cupcakes, lets talk about real food), Last Cake Standing (see my thoughts on cupcakes sweetheart) Next Food Network Star (where nearly all the contestants seem to get a show – win, lose or draw), The Great Food Truck Race,  Restaurant Impossible, Food Network Challenge, Worst Cooks in America (how about worst idea in America?).

Being intimately aware of the frog in boiling water analogy, the programming folks at the Food Network slyly and effectively used the same trick by slowly turn up the heat on mental flatulence shows until we finally arrive at the pièce de résistance of television insults – Extreme Chef.  I will admit that I have not seen the show.  If I were to watch it, I am confident my opinion would not change – just the concept makes me want to self-Heimlich.  I also have to admit that I have not yet been bitching constructively.  For this I apologize.  There are still a number of shows I enjoy, and I appreciate the hard work of the folks at the Food Network for the quality shows we get to enjoy. 

So, to Mr. Bob Tuschman (General Manager of the Food Network), I apologize for the harsh words.  However, my underlying intent remains, so I suggest using the Google translator to rephrase everything I have said so far into French or Spanish – it will sound so much better if you don’t understand the language.  And as for the constructive part, here are just a couple of thoughts for you to marinade overnight in the fridge:

  1. Go back to your roots, ok, just above the roots when you got the production thing squared away.  Bob, you were there in 1998 and were responsible for developing some of the best programming and talent the network has seen.  I am confident you can do it again.
  2. A small portion of the competitive/reality programming is okay.  Chopped and Iron Chef are good examples…but like any seasoning, use it sparingly and with full intention.
  3. Avoid the silly and fluffy stuff – like Extreme Chef and anything with the word “cake” in it.  An exception would be the use of cake, as in Cakebread Winery.  BTW, I used the photo of the cannoli at the beginning of this post to show I am not biased against deserts – quite the contrary.  But please, no more cake competitions…even if you try to disguise it by adding a cup.
  4. If you need something new, try a show devoted to food and wine pairing, and why it works – or not (hmmm, interesting).
  5. Reserve at least half of your programming, and all of your prime time programming, to serious chefs creating serious food (they can be done in an entertaining way, ala Alton Brown, but leave the circus acts and sideshows to the Clown Network).  Make this a fire tempered sacred steak – and nobody gets a bite.  The rest of the experiments can be programmed from midnight to noon.

Finally, I know that I don’t have to watch the brain jello reality shows.  I can just turn the channel, and I do.  But I honestly enjoy what the Food Network brings to television (well most of it).  And because I care, I would rather speak up, than see next season’s debut of “Pimp My Salad.”

If you harbor feelings similar to mine, I encourage you to let the good folks at the Food Network hear from you.  Here is a link to the Food Network feedback page.  Heck, if you disagree with me, go to their feedback page and encourage them to continue down this path toward the dark side of irreparably  burnt foie gras (now there is a sad image to leave you with, but really, no influence on your decision was intended).  I will still have sports to watch – where reality is the name of the game.

Thanks for listening to my little rant.  I will be back on the meds tomorrow so we can return to the important business of food, wine, and the mind bending ecstasy of great wine paired with great food.

In vino veritas, buen provecho.