Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Prime Time Food

If anyone had suggested twenty years ago that an assortment of food shows would one day regularly beat out sit-coms during prime TV view hours, they would have been thought insane. Everyone "knew" that cooking shows were daytime fare, and their only potential audience, a few bored housewives. And everyone also "knew" just what the format was for a cooking show: some cook standing in front of a range making something, the end. Even the Julia Child shows, better and more influential than the rest at the time, didn't exactly make for scintillating TV. Bo-ring.

My view is that two factors more than anything have changed all this. The first was the publication, in 2000, of the book "Kitchen Confidential", by an obscure line cook and failed novelist named Anthony Bourdain. The second is obvious: the rise of Reality TV.

"Kitchen Confidential" was, in effect, the autobiography of a kitchen nobody: a man seemingly lacking any touch of culinary greatness, but a man entirely in love with - addicted to - professional cooking all the same. It was brutal and bawdy, funny and touching, honest, and perfectly captivating. Bourdain intended it to be something of an underground piece: "I had no expectation that anyone - other than a few burnt-out line cooks, curious chefs and tormented loners - would ever read the thing", he wrote.

As it happened, "Kitchen Confidential" exploded. It became a New York Times bestseller, became fodder for water cooler talk in offices all over the world, and made Bourdain a wealthy, famous man. Most importantly, it cast most cooking crews not as groups of delicate PBS-style figures, but more akin to pirate crews or street gangs who got the job done by forming into primally rigid, virtually all-male hierarchies, held together by physical intimidation, appropriately-crushing insults, obscene, macabre humor, and a need for surrogate family. And let's face it - reading about that is a lot more exciting than reading Julia Child's placid explanation of how to flay a trout.

In a word, Bourdain's book cast professional cooking as an adventure tale bristling with derring-do and masculine energy - perfect material for a "reality TV" craze just about to hit. And somewhere or other, it clicked for some TV executive. Plug the real life drama of real cooking, punctuated with competition and outside confrontation, into the Reality wave, and it'll be a hit. And it was.

I don't really get watching Nigella Lawson make buttered scones for an hour. But I DO get Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" or "Hell's Kitchen". I do get "Iron Chef". I do get Bourdain's own show "No Reservations", in which he travels around the world eating native cuisine. (In fact, in some ways, Bourdain's show is the best of all, in that it's the one which best shows the potentially religious meaning that food preparation and communal consumption have.)

There is something viscerally thrilling about taking crude elements and shaping and refining them into something new. It is even more thrilling when that shaping facilitates family and friends coming together to share their experiences and hopes and fears, joys and sorrows - their lives - with each other.

I'm not saying Bourdain's recent criticisms of the Food Network aren't well taken in many respects; but on the other hand, food TV is miles ahead of where it used to be. And that's good news for everyone who appreciates the joys of dining...and deep human communion.


Laura said...

so how do you explain the plethora of house shows? People buying houses, people fixing houses, etc.

ps - its good to see you blogging again Tal!

Kris said...

The Food Network, at the inception, was a well meaning idea to bring people back to the kitchen, to get them excited about food. And I believe it has done that. It also brought people back to the table - where they belong.

But having said that - I can't stand what the channel has become. "Hollywood" has taken over and made a flashy, toothy, breasty version of what started out simple and entertaining.

Give me Bourdain, give me PBS with Jaques Pepin, give me Julia Child re-runs. Give me Lydia Bastianich rocking back and forth with delight over a wild boar ragu.

People who truly have a passion for food find a creative energy in the passion shown by the true food pioneers.

All the rest is just eye candy.

erlybird said...

And who can forget Graham Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet? A real asshole, I hear tell. Bourdain is another.

But I can enjoy food and cooking shows without having to put up with the likes of Bourdain. Ewww...the guy gives me the shivers. And I am not quite sure that being the head chef at Les Halles had thrown him into obscurity. But even if he had come from obscurity I would like to think anyone could sit down and have a meal with an evangelist of food but Bourdain seems too "cool" for that...and unless one had cigarettes for him to bum or a hip flask to pass...forget it!

Ah, well...just give me my weekly dose of The Splendid Table on the Radio and I am good to go. Call me bo-ring if you like.

smile said...

Can Bourdain even actually taste the food? Doesn't smoking and drinking that much kind of kill the tastebuds?

Tal said...

All I want to know is, what is Cat Cora doing as an Iron Chef? Everything she cooks looks gross to me.

Guinevere said...

Is it bad that I listen to the NPR cooking podcasts, like "hidden kitchens," and used to happily watch Julia Childs, and her ilk, as a child? Sure, I like some of the flashier shows they do now, but give me old-school Iron Chef (squid ink ice cream, anyone?) and a little bit of the guy that reminds me of Bill Nye as a chef... um... his name slips my mind now.

I usually won't watch more than a few minutes of Anthony Bordain, but I do like the chubby bald guy that eats weird foods. Maybe it's because he seems more approachable, and I have a kid who begs to eat the same type of stuff he tries on his show.

Cindy J. said...

I, too enjoy the competitive cooking shows; seeing people create new and exciting things in the kitchen. I do have to agree with Kris, that it does have an eye candy aspect (why is everyone so ga-ga over Padme Lakshmi anyway?). And it's kind of funny that Bourdain is now a guest judge on such shows.

cricket said...

Tal, are you watching the Original Iron Chef or Iron Chef America? Because once you've watched the original, you just can't go back.

Case and point:

Original Iron Chef: "Today's secret ingredient is....SWALLOW'S NEST, worth one million dollars!"

Iron Chef America: "Today's secret ingredient is...HAMBURGER!"

Somehow it's just less dramatic. I find ICA just so bland and unexciting.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - you are watching the UK version, I presume? All of his UK shows are fabulous. Again, the American versions, not so much.

Top Chef should be on your list of great shows to watch. Watching real chefs battle it out in the kitchen just explodes of creativity.