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Chefs Weigh In: Is There Too Much Food Television?

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.

[Art: Eric Lebofsky]

There are many, many food-related television shows coming up for the Fall season. So many, in fact, that you probably couldn't watch all of the programming while fulfilling the commitments of full-time employment. So, is there too much of it? And furthermore, do shows that make chefs do all sorts of silly things actually have an impact on the craft and industry of cooking? Do a good number of these shows give people the wrong idea of what it takes to be a cook, or is it simply harmless entertainment?

These are the questions we put to five chefs. Here, now, John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford) Alex Raij (La Vara, New York), Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, Chicago), Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milk Bar, New York), and Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods) take on the issue.


Andrew Zimmern

Program: Bizarre Foods

Do you think there's too much food TV out there, as some have suggested recently?
I see the same thing and have seen it coming for the last few years. There's way too much of everything out there, so it was just a matter of time before the food and travel television space got even more crowded. Are you familiar with Icarus?

I am.
I use the phrase Icarus Syndrome a lot. I think a lot of these shows are going to fly too high, too close to the sun, with the wrong equipment, and plummet to earth. A lot of it won't resonate with the audience. The good cheftestant shows and the good travel shows will always, always continue. This community is small enough that I've seen a lot of previews and rough cuts, and I will tell you that these shows have to be about stories — it has to be something with someone (a host) that people will want to return to week after week after week. And being a host is much different from being a skilled restaurateur or chef.

A lot of these shows have been ordered on short runs, so we'll see how they test and how they do. I'm stunned like most everyone else at the actual list of what's coming this fall. Let's face it, though: food and travel are still underrepresented in proportion to the national passion for them. What I find hysterical is that in basically every restaurant I walk into, there's a publicist, a chef, a line cook, an owner who says, "Yeah, we're shooting a pilot next week." I think it's staggering.

Do you worry that it can do damage to or misrepresent the craft?
I'm a free marketer. I never want to take away someone's opportunity, but I will tell you that if you fetishize an industry, you end up misrepresenting it. That level of misrepresentation sometimes becomes the truth. It's the Dick Cheney sensation. It's very, very dangerous.

I was in India talking to Indian cooks about the British fascination with chicken tikka masala, and I was in China talking with Chinese cooks about the global fascination with General Tso's chicken. Those dishes originated outside those countries, and when we talked about them, the cooks said that they indeed tasted great. The danger is if they become standard bearers for the cuisine, when they don't have a lot of connection to the authentic. We don't need to go back to horse and buggies, but we still need to know how they work and still keep them around to understand where we came from. If we eliminate the understanding of what it takes to be a chef, the level of commitment and the level of craft passed down from chef to chef will deteriorate. Everyone in the food world will be a cheftestant, and that's dangerous.

In your opinion, how strong or how far along is that misrepresentation?
I think it's at a controllable level right now. It's going to increase in volume for a little bit, but the bad ones will disappear. The crap will go away. The noise right now is loud enough to evoke a response. But look at the Paul Liebrandt documentary: the audience for that is small, but when I see it win all these awards, my faith is buoyed. There is a tremendous interest in what really goes into a food life. The big thing that hasn't been talked about a lot — Mario Batali I think has been the only one saying this — is who gets to say what about whom? I don't feel like stifling opinion, but I will say that a lot of producers are making shows where people who have no understanding of food culture are talking about food in terms that misguide the public. I think that's dangerous, but there are a lot of people out there with a tremendous understanding and skill that give me hope.
[Photo: Travel Channel]


Graham Elliot

Restaurant: Graham Elliot — Chicago, IL

Would you agree with those pointing out just how much food television there is right now?
I would have to agree. It's amazing how food has become an entertainment medium, whether it's through documentary film, travel shows, competitions, or dump-and-stir cooking shows that were the original thing. It's reaching so many people, and there are a lot of different niches.

But do you look at it mostly positively or do you have problems with it?
I'm a capitalist at heart, so I always believe that whatever the market dictates is a reflection of reality. The fact that there are so many shows being added and that a lot of them are still on the air — it must be entertaining to some people.

Do you watch a lot of it?
There's a handful out there that are fun to watch, like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. They show something that people haven't seen before, and they are engaging. There's still room for other things out there, too.

Like what?
Something like the similarities between the craft of cooking and music and other things like that. Food is a creative outlet, and a lot of these shows tend to focus on the full-contact sport aspect of it right now. I'm part of that myself, to some extent, but being a judge on MasterChef. It's really interesting — and I'm sure a lot of chefs have referred to this — is that now the main interest for a lot of kids getting into cooking is to go Hollywood as fast as possible. When I dropped out of high school and started working in kitchens, it was to pay bills and maybe one day have a restaurant.

Several chefs have indeed pointed that out. Do you think it'll have a significant impact on the industry?
It's going to have a tremendous impact on how the industry works, honestly. I just finished a book on the history of MTV, and it's such a parallel to what's going on today in cooking. Chefs and artists have to evolve with reality, whether it's with TV or social media. Writers have to understand that their world is changing, too. You can sit in your kitchen and talk about sell-outs and hacks, but there's something to be said when you see that Guy Fieri has two Lamborghinis and is opening up a massive restaurant in Times Square. Is one bad? Is one good? At the end of the day, everyone determines their own destiny. But it's absolutely having an effect on cooking and what it means to be a chef. A good example is Michael Symon's comment about Sandra Lee and using the term "chef" loosely.

So you're kind of ambivalent about it?
Not ambivalent. I guess I'm more able to see both sides of it, because I've been a part of both. I've worked for five James Beard-winning chefs and have won my awards, but I think that a lot of people on TV haven't had any cooking experience at all. There are others, though, that are very talented and knowledgeable. I think it's about being able to do both and do them with integrity. At MasterChef, I try to teach people to better understand cooking techniques and ingredients. It's a great platform for it.
[Photo Credit]


Alex Raij

Restaurant: La Vara, El Quinto Pino, Txikito — New York, NY

What's your take?
I don't think it's necessarily bad for the industry to have all of these programs. What I've noticed is that being on food TV has become another, separate career in food. There are people for whom that is the main aspiration. It's become another profession.

What do you think of the quality of most of the shows?
I grew up on shows like Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, and I love those programs and learned a lot from them. I think you can still learn, but you need to be selective and know where to turn. It's not the same thing to watch Alton Brown as it is to watch Semi-Homemade. I don't find her show useful or interesting, but I guess somebody does.

I did Iron Chef and got a lot out of it. I think it's good to be competitive sometimes. I grew out of the experience. There are probably people who probably find out about the restaurants because of that. I also did some Cooking Channel stuff, and No Reservations, too, which is a great show. I think it's cool that there are these jobs in television that are related to food but don't mean you have to be in catering or own a restaurant.

So you don't look at this particularly negatively?
It's not a complete reflection of the industry — it can make it look too easy or glamorous — and I can see the argument for how that makes aspiring cooks not have as strong a work ethic and gives people the wrong idea. I wouldn't exaggerate that though, because I think these shows are a reflection of an interest in food, and an interest in food at various levels, be it home cooking or fine dining. That's not a bad thing at all.
[Photo: Daniel Krieger]


John Currence

Restaurant: City Grocery — Oxford, Mississippi

What are your thoughts on food television these days?
You could make the case that there's very little food TV that actually tries to accurately represent the industry. As far as how people end up being portrayed — for me, the experience was great. I was forced to face some personal demons, and I developed some great friendships. You know, Hugh Acheson and I have been friends for ten years, but when we were on Top Chef: Masters, we spent ten hours in a green room every day talking about aspirations and family and what drives us. We didn't have to drink seven bourbons to start talking.

What we had to do to perform for them — having to cook a cart of bugs or something like that — that was the unfortunate part. You don't really get to see what the chefs are truly capable of, sometimes. At the same time, that's not why the general public watches these shows. They are generating stuff for the masses, because that's what the masses want to see. Some of it is nothing short of absolutely retarded, but that's why you have a remote control.

At the same time, I want to kiss the men on the mouth who are behind Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern's shows. They are incredible representatives of our industry and do a magnificent job of doing some real education. It's the equivalent of watching public television, because the content is that deep. I have never seen an episode of Chopped.

But how do you think it represents the industry, for the most part?
Whether it's through food TV or something else, people often get into this business for the wrong reasons, period. It just so happens that this is the sort of sexy one that gives you a paycheck. Schools are now crafting courses about how to be on TV and act when you're in front of a microphone and how to do a demo. They are unfortunately spending a lot of time on that and not educating them on the basics of cooking. They're teaching how to create a false appeal. "Gotta know how to be on TV because what are you gonna do when you get the call from Top Chef?"

But you're going to have people getting into it for the wrong reasons all the time. One aspect of that is TV, which might actually bring people to go to CIA and all that. But I don't blame television for being the potential downfall of cooking.
[Photo credit]


Christina Tosi

Restaurant: Momofuku Milk Bar — New York, NY

What are your feelings on this?
I don't have cable, so my concept of how much food television is out there is probably wildly inaccurate!

Give it a shot.
Back when I did have cable, the Japanese version of Iron Chef, Iron Chef America and Top Chef where the hot, hot tickets. If I had to answer, I'd say food TV portrays more of who we are as TV watchers and less of who we are as people the food industry. Though funnily enough, most people I know in the food industry are rabid TV watchers.

I approach watching TV with an honest, somewhat mindless don't-take-yourself-so-seriously mentality. Don't believe everything you watch, read, or hear. Don't complain when it sucks you in. And don't be ashamed to get excited about it. It's just TV. You can always turn it off and go read a cookbook.
[Photo: Gabriele Stabile]

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