Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Food Network: As Interesting as a Multi-Car Accident

A year or two ago, chef, novelist, traveller, and raconteur Anthony Bourdain posted an essay about the Food Network on Michael Ruhlman’s blog. It made half a million people really mad (yes, but they were the right people), and then was taken off the blog. But it didn’t disappear without a trace. You can still find it out there, cached. I’ve pasted most of it in below, with my own ejaculations [Hey! You in the back row! Shut up!] with my own ejaculations, as I was saying, inserted in italics.

I realize that in putting it here I am probably violating Tony Bourdain’s wishes. If he, or his lawyers, ask me to take it off, I will do so instantly. Tony is my new mentor. Yay Tony! Tony for President!


By Anthony Bourdain

I actually WATCH Food Network now and again, more often than not drawn in by the progressive horrors on screen. [As to me, I am a Food Network addict. Like any addiction, it is not a pretty thing.] I find myself riveted by its awfulness, like watching a multi-car accident in slow motion. Mesmerized at the ascent of the Ready-Made bobblehead personalities, and the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs, I find myself de-constructing the not-terrible shows, imagining behind the scenes struggles and frustrations, and obsessing unhealthily on the Truly Awful ones. Screaming out loud at Sandra Lee in disbelief as she massacres another dish, then sits grinning, her face stretched into a terrifying rictus of faux cheer for the final triumphant presentation. I mourn for Mario..and Alton...Bobby and yes--even Emeril, nobly holding the fort while the TV empire he helped build crumbles like undercooked Bundt cake into a goo of Cheez Wiz around him.

Some thoughts on the Newer, Younger, More Male-Oriented, More Dumb-Ass Food Network:

ALTON BROWN: How did Alton slip inside the wire--and stay there all these years? He must have something on them. He’s smart. You actually learn something from his commentary. And I’ll admit it: I watch and enjoy Iron Chef America-in all its cheesy glory. Absolutely SHOCKED and thrilled when guys like Homaru Cantu show up as contestants--and delighted when Mario wins--again and again, forestalling his secretly long-planned execution. His commentary is mostly good. And that collar-bone snapping fall off the motorcycle on Feasting On Asphalt? Good television! [I think I can explain why Alton has lasted. He’s educational, yes, and that’s why I too love him. But when he does it, it doesn’t feel like education. His shows are like those wines that “go down like soda pop.” You’re drunk before you know it – and by then you don’t care!]

EMERIL: I’m actually grateful when I channel surf across his show. He’s STILL there--the original Behemoth. And I STILL find him unwatchable. As much mileage as I’ve gotten over the years, making fun of Emeril; he deserves a lot more respect than I’ve given him. He does run a very successful and very decent restaurant group. He is--in fact--a really nice guy. And-as much as I hate the show-- compared to the current crop of culinary non-entities, he looks like Escoffier. He will probably be the last of the Real Chefs. I’m sure they’re growing future replacement options in petrie dishes somewhere, conducting Top Secret focus groups at suburban malls with their latest Bright Young Hopeful. I’m just glad he’s still there--a rebuke to the geniuses who brought us such Great Ideas as Dweezil and Lisa. [Emeril’s recipes are very good – and there are so many of them! This man is a genius. It’s too bad that in constructing his screen persona he found so many distinct, powerful ways to be annoying. If he were a writer, he would be an exclamation-point addict. By the way, isn’t“kick it up a notch!” a mixed metaphor? Am I the only one who cares?]

BOBBY FLAY: They seem to have noticed Bobby’s strong “negatives” among some viewer responses during focus groups--and decided to respond by subjecting poor Bobby to THROWDOWN; the object of which is to allow every web-fingered geek with a backyard grill--or half-mad muffin maker to proclaim, “I beat Bobby Flay at makin’ barbeque!” at the heart-warming end of show--before returning to tend their meth labs.. I watched poor Bobby battle to a draw recently in some bogus Southwestern “Chili Face-Off.” Now…does ANYONE actually believe that Bobby Flay can’t make a better chili than a supermarket ground beef bearing amateur? I don’t. It’s a cruel exercise in humiliation. A variation on “Dunk Bozo” or “Shoot The Geek,” at the carnival. And whatever I might have thought of Flay’s previous TV efforts, I find the network’s misuse of one of their founding chefs to be nauseatingly cynical. The conspiratorial-minded might be tempted to suspect this as yet another part of the Secret Plan to rid themselves of the annoyingly big ticket chefs--by driving Bobby to quit--or insane with misery. He may not be Mr. Cuddlesworth, but he’s a successful businessman and a good chef--and he doesn’t, after all, need this shit. [Again, right on the mark. It’s as if FN has decided Bobby is just the sort of guy democratic America would like to see humiliated every week. “Huh! He thinks he’s so smart!” He is smart, assholes.]

Oh, Mario! Oh great one! They shut down Molto Mario--only the smartest and best of the stand-up cooking shows. Is there any more egregiously under-used, criminally mishandled, dismissively treated chef on television? Relegated to the circus of Iron Chef America, where--like a great, toothless lion, fouling his cage, he hangs on--and on--a major draw (and often the only reason to watch the show). How I would like to see him unchained, free to make the television shows he’s capable of, the Real Mario--in all his Rabelasian brilliance. How I would love to hear the snapping bones of his cruel FN ringmasters, crunching between his mighty jaws! Let us see the cloven hooves beneath those cheery clogs! Let Mario be Mario! [Yes! Free Mario! Free Mario!]

THAT ACE OF CAKES GUY: Hey…He’s got talent! And..he seems to be a trained chef! And he’s really making food--and selling it in a real business! I think…I like it! If I have one reservation, it’s that I have no idea if the stuff actually TASTES good. It LOOKS really creative and quirky--and I’m interested but…I’s like construction going on over there from what we’re told and shown. One suspects that the producers don’t want to waste valuable time talking about anything so technical as food--on “Food” Network. I mean...what’s in those cakes, beneath the icing and marzipan and fondant? That said, it’s the only “kicky, new, cutting edge, in-your-face” hopeful they’ve managed to trot out of any quality in memory. Hope it lasts. Wait till they try and put the poor bastard on a pony--or do a “Tailgate Special” with the usual suspects. Or a “Thanksgiving Special” where he has to sit down with the bobbleheads and pretend to like it. On balance, it’s still probably the best new project they’ve come up with in a long, long time. [One of the many things that makes this show so refreshing: it’s one of the very few on the FN where most of the people are not physically pretty. These are real people, thank God!]

GIADA: What’s going on here!? Giada can actually cook! She was robbed in her bout versus Rachael Ray on ICA. ROBBED! And Food Net seems more interested in her enormous head (big head equals big ratings. Really!) and her cleavage--than the fact that she’s likeable, knows what she’s doing in an Italian kitchen--and makes food you’d actually want to eat. The new high concept Weekend Getaway show is a horrible, tired re-cap of the cheap-ass “Best Of” and “40 Dollar a Day” formula. Send host to empty restaurant. Watch them make crappy food for her. Have her take a few lonely, awkward stabs at the plate, then feign enjoyment with appropriately orgasmic eye-closing and moaning..Before spitting it out and rushing to the trailer. Send her to Italy and let her cook. She’s good at it. [On that Iron Chef special, you could literally see Rachel sweating. No one seemed more shocked that she won than she did.]

RACHAEL: Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So...what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could--if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?” Where the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us, make us better--teach us--and in fact, did, Rachael uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. “You’re doing just fine. You don’t even have to chop an onion--you can buy it already chopped. Aspire to nothing…Just sit there. Have another Triscuit…Sleep….sleep….” [Well, yes, if you want to call it that, “mediocrity” is what Rachel is all about. It’s what Ortega y Gasset would call her “theme." Understand why mediocrity rules our world and you will understand the great Rachel phemenon. There is a positive side to Rachel, of course, but the positives are really negatives, in the sense that they consist of her lacking some liability or other. She is not intimidating, not too smart, not too beautiful. She is the perfect little sister, someone you would love to go shopping with, if you could ever get her to shut up. The unfortunate Giada, on the other hand, is everything Rachel is not. It's her curse.]

PAULA DEEN: I’m reluctant to bash what seems to be a nice old lady. Even if her supporting cast is beginning to look like the Hills Have Eyes--and her food a True Buffet of Horrors. A recent Hawaii show was indistinguishable from an early John Waters film. And the food on a par with the last scene of Pink Flamingos. But I’d like to see her mad. Like her look-alike, Divine in the classic, “Female Trouble.“ Paula Deen on a Baltimore Killing Spree would be something to see. Let her get Rachael in a headlock--and it’s all over. [Ah, Paula! She just might be the only FN personality who is more annoying than Emeril.]

SANDRA LEE: Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained. I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see. This is simply irresponsible programming. Its only possible use might be as a psychological warfare strategy against the resurgent Taliban--or dangerous insurgent groups. A large-racked blonde repeatedly urging Afghans and angry Iraqis to stuff themseles with fatty, processed American foods might be just the weapon we need to win the war on terror. [This is almost as good as Bourdain’s other, more famous, remark on Sandra: “think of Betty Crocker after a weekend huffing crack.”]


H. L. Mencken said that democracy is the theory that the people deserve to get what they want, good and hard. The market is more democratic than any government could ever be. Ultimately, this is the moral problem with the Food Channel, as with any business corporation. They are giving the average schmo exactly what he wants, and nothing one bit better. That's the real tragedy of it: What a waste! I say unto them, in the words of Emeril, kick it up a notch!
By the way, you can find Michael Ruhlman's delightfully incendiary comment on the crashing and burning of the Food Network's Next Star Season Three here. Ruhlman also posted Bourdain's comment on the FNNS Season Three first episode here. It is, as there is surely no need to say, brilliant.

No comments: