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.