Articles in Television
The enormous popularity of British television’s “Downton Abbey” is a great boon to PBS, which is airing it in the United States, and I suspect its huge success may have come as a surprise. Though PBS anticipated Emmy awards last year for costumes and for Maggie Smith’s performance in the juicy role of an aristocratic dowager, the show also walked away with awards for best writing, directing, cinematography and for the best miniseries or movie. Audiences love the story lines that zip between the behavior and happenings of upstairs gentry and the gossip and activities of below-stairs servants who make possible the gracious style of living enjoyed upstairs.
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One should never underestimate the American fascination with the British class system. We love to learn the details about the contrasting problems facing each class, and how they deal with them. The upper class has time on its hands and must figure out which fashionable outfit to wear for dinner, while those below stairs in their aprons and caps must slave away to get elegant meals on the table. What both classes share, however, is a knack for getting into interesting sexual entanglements. So, in the end, “Downton Abbey” turns out to be a soap opera with great clothes. As always, food serves as a reliable way to distinguish the classes not only by what is eaten but where and with whom it is eaten, and in the case of “Downton Abbey,” who cooks the food, who serves it and who gets to sit comfortably while being served.
Food and British social history
This series has inspired a small industry of books, some offering behind-the-scenes photographs and chat about the actors and sets; others dipping into social history to give the reader a bit of context. Even cookbooks with Edwardian recipes written by contemporary writers are coming along. But, for me, the best book that relates to the show was written many years ago by Margaret Powell, an English girl from a poor family who worked her way up from kitchen maid to cook in several great houses. Her memoir is said to have inspired Julian Fellowes, writer of “Downton Abbey.”
Born in 1907, Powell went into service when she was 15, landing in several upper-class homes first in the kitchen doing the dirtiest jobs in the household and eventually as a respected cook. Her memoir, “Below Stairs” gives us an authentic picture of what life was like for servants before World War I and after, the years portrayed in “Downton Abbey.” Happily, Powell also wrote a cookbook that informs us of the dishes served to the well-born. We do not find here English foods with such amusing and, sometimes off-color names as Bubble and Squeak, Toad-in-the-hole or Spotted Dick. Instead, we get dishes clearly influenced by French cuisine, an array of proper recipes for stocks, and directions for such classic pastries as choux and pâtefeuilletée. This is not surprising since the fame of French cooking was spread by the presence of French-born chefs in many of the British great houses and gentlemen’s clubs. This prestigious fare then trickled down to the smaller private homes of gentry who cared about status and saw to it that guests were served impressive French dishes. But we know Powell’s cookery book was written by an Englishwomanwhen we come across recipes for such British classics as treacle tart, the pub favorite known as Scotch eggs and curried eggs, which is a dish that reflects the British rule in India.
American-style success in a British class system
Learning how to cook was not easy for Powell who, in her first job as kitchen maid, faced a mean-spirited cook unwilling to teach her young assistant. Instead, Powell found herself stuck with such nasty jobs as cleaning smelly game that had been hanging for weeks, and skinning dead rabbits in one fell swoop. In another job, when Powell told her employer that she wanted to attend cooking school, she was given the time off, but had to pay for lessons herself out of her meager salary. When she did, she found herself taken in by a fraudulent Englishman pretending to be a French chef. She quit when she realized that his frequent outbursts of “oui, oui” and “mais non” were the extent of his knowledge of the French language, reflecting as well his limited knowledge of French cooking.
But Powell soldiered on, moving ahead as a cook, revealing her deepening knowledge by saying, “the less cooking you know how to do, the more competent you feel. … The more experienced I got the more I worried. I soon realized when a dish wasn’t perfection.” These are revelations of a real cook that could have been uttered by Thomas Keller today.
Powell left service when she married a milk-delivery man and set up her own household, earning extra money from time to time by catering events. She later took courses and began writing books, including novels as well as her popular memoir “Below Stairs.” Her later success was in contrast to the lives of most British household servants who remained poor and subservient all of their lives. Being stuck like this intrigues Americans who have always seen themselves as living within a fluid society in which success is attainable. At the same time, we are a bit scornful of the idle classes who spend spare time shooting small birds and animals for others to clean and cook.
Scotch Eggs, adapted from “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book”
1 pound plain, uncooked sausage meat
1 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dried plain breadcrumbs
Olive oil or cooking oil
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Place eggs in pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and turn off the heat. When the eggs and water are cool the eggs should be hard-cooked. Peel eggs.
3. Mix salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg into sausage meat. Divide the meat into six parts. Roll each portion thin enough so that it can cover an egg completely.
4. Dredge each sausage-covered egg in bread crumbs until completely coated.
5. Roll eggs in oil and place on a baking sheet and bake, turning three or four times until the crust in brown, around 20 minutes.
Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS on Jan. 6
Top photo: Book covers of “Below Stairs” and “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book.” Credit: Barbara Haber
If you are not watching the HBO series “Treme,” trust me, from a food fanatic’s point of view, you are seriously missing out. The series, created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer first roared into America’s living rooms on April 11, 2010, with all the stunning force of Hurricane Katrina.
Set in the devastated city of New Orleans, the story line picks up three months after that life-changing event. Although most of the recurring characters are fictional, so many real-life musicians and chefs make regular appearances that New Orleanians have come to regard “Treme” as “our reality TV show.”
From the very start, the writers and producers recognized the important role that food plays in New Orleans’ everyday life and how it figured into the rebuilding of the city. Actress Kim Dickens plays chef/restaurateur, Janette Desautel, a character loosely modeled on Chef Susan Spicer. To ensure authenticity, Spicer was brought on from the start for consultation with culinary matters such as drafting Desautel’s menu and teaching basic knife skills to the actors.
Familiar faces in fictional kitchens
The show is largely shot on location in New Orleans, so these professional touches were needed to make the actors look and behave at home in a professional kitchen setting. Chef Aaron Burgau’s Uptown restaurant, Patois, provided the location for Desautel’s, Janette’s restaurant in the first season.
By Season 2, David Simon had recruited Tony Bourdain to write the food-focused episodes. “I’d been a long time fan of David Simon’s, so when he called me about working on ‘Treme,’ I squealed like a little girl!” Bourdain said.
Bourdain recruited friends who happened to also be celebrity superstar chefs. Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang to make a surprise appearance at Desautel’s before Janette closes her restaurant and trades the Big Easy for the Big Apple.
“Treme’s” executive producer, Nina Noble, and production designer, Chester Kaczenski, made a whirlwind trip through New York kitchens. They used Ripert’s Le Bernadin to shoot on location. When Janette goes to work for David Chang at the fictional Lucky Peach restaurant, Kaczenski so meticulously recreated Chang’s Momofuku kitchen on a set in a New Orleans’ West Bank warehouse that Chang said he had a “freaky, out of body experience” the first time he saw it.
Scenes set in famous New Orleans bars and restaurants are peppered throughout all three seasons of “Treme.” Chef Leah Chase re-creates her annual Holy Thursday Gumbo Z’herbes luncheon at Dooky Chase so that the fictional political characters could make an appearance as the real New Orleans politicos always do. We see Spicer at her French Quarter restaurant, Bayonne, celebrate a traditional Christmas feast at the 150-year-old Tujague’s and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the rollicking at the annual Galatoire’s lunch on the Friday before Mardi Gras.
A fantasy menu
Season 3, which debuted in September, sets the culinary bar high in the very first episode. Chang, Janette’s fictional boss, brings her along to an exclusive chefs’ dinner. New Orleans’ restaurant Mila provides the edgy, New-York-style location for a fictional, establishment, Brulard’s. Bourdain’s script has Ripert, Colicchio and Dufresne dining with Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale on a fantasy menu of pâtés and charcuterie, salmon en croute with dill cream, lievre a la royale and isle floatant, all washed down with a 1961 Chateau Latour Grand Vin.
Later, when Janette heads home to open a new upscale eatery, Desautel’s on the Avenue, Kaczenski created an entire, functional new restaurant, using much of the real equipment from “Lucky Peach.” Chef Emeril Lagasse takes Janette under his wing when her own new looming celebrity overwhelms her then, there is a strictly New Orleans version of the celebrity chef dinner when chefs Spicer, John Besh, Donald Link, Scott Boswell, and JoAnne Clevenger of the Upperline dine together at Janette’s new restaurant.
If you can’t get enough of chef reality TV, catch up on “Treme’s” Season 1 and 2, available online and on DVD. I promise you Sunday nights filled with guilty food porn-style pleasure as you join me for another new serving of delicious “Treme.”
Photo: David Chang and Kim Dickens in “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
On May 9, 2010, a young couple set out on a yearlong driving adventure in their home state of Minnesota. There would be no mindless eating on this road trip, however. For Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, real food was the journey as well as the destination. In place of junk food bags, their car collected local products, like wild rice, honey and edible weeds.
Itinerant filmmakers, their aim was to document foods grown, gathered, husbanded and hunted by real people. By the end of the year, they had created a collection of 52 short films called “The Perennial Plate: Adventures in Sustainable Eating” and a 60,000-views-per-month Internet hit series.
Their passion fueled, the tireless couple set off on a second year road trip, this time across the United States. Their resources: a Toyota Prius, an immersion blender and double the funds of their first trip, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. Through 43 states and across 23,000 miles, “The Perennial Plate” posted 50 new episodes. Their three-to-12-minute videos on subjects from eating insects to a Southern farm-to-table dinner went viral.
For their third season, “The Perennial Plate” goes global with the first episode set to air in late October. Their route is a 12-country journey in partnership with Intrepid Travel, beginning in China and Japan. Anyone with Internet access can go along for the continuing journey. It’s all free, but the going’s not always easy.
Not the Food Network
Episodes of “The Perennial Plate” feature Klein, a chef with four-star credentials, visiting a locale and interviewing regular folks. Subjects have included everyone from cheese makers and ranchers to urban homesteaders and mushroom foragers.
While Klein has a background in filmmaking, videographer Fine is new to the process. A vegetarian, Fine shot the lamb butchering in episode 6 when Klein couldn’t find any other help. “She did a better job than anyone else,” Klein said, and she has had the role ever since.
“There’s no script or agenda,” Fine said.
Their shoots can last from one to several days. Together, they edit the footage, finding the story and timing it to the music, which drives the pace. (Their ideal length is seven minutes.) Their video creations have the energy and momentum of a great, short road trip — with exceptional, if virtual, snacks.
The pair build each episode with a combination of gorgeous camera shots, memorable characters and a catchy soundtrack (all by independent artists) capped off by a pithy on-screen quote. It combines the personal travelogue with an engaging story of people, place and the food in their lives.
“We’re looking for vulnerable moments with people,” Klein said. “Sometimes we shoot animals being butchered and it’s hard.”
From road kill to Dumpster diving, the couple don’t avert the camera lens from any food topic they find compelling, but they don’t dwell on the bizarre.
Storytelling and activism in ‘Perennial Plate’
Another hallmark of “The Perennial Plate” is the “you are there” quality, whether it’s a joyous, sunlit farm dinner or a stern-faced fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico struggling in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Backed by memorable images, the subjects do all the talking. No voiceover tells viewers what to make of it all, but it’s hard not to be swayed by the filmmakers’ craft. Klein and Fine have a broader mission than to entertain. They want to influence the future of food from production to consumption. Broadcasting via the Web, with traffic from Facebook, Twitter and The Huffington Post as well as other media, has given “The Perennial Plate” a larger distribution than they could have imagined.
These filmmakers believe that personalized, captivating storytelling is more effective than showing movies with a big agenda about changing the world.
“The work seems effective when it’s not shoved down people’s throats. They get excited because it’s exciting or inspiring,” He said. “People come on the journey with us.”
This is a series, at heart, about a boyfriend and girlfriend on the ultimate road trip, connecting with people and confronting with compassion the difficult realities of their lives. Even Fine who spends nearly all her time behind the camera said, “We open ourselves up. I really care about them and I’m really sad when we leave.”
With continuing input and tips from their followers and viewers, these food adventurers will find more uplifting and true stories about eating and health within local communities and environments everywhere they go. Season 3 of “The Perennial Plate” will feature a biweekly video from around the globe through the spring of 2014.
Photo: Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of “The Perennial Plate.” Credit: Fran Collin of work-for-food.com
Julia Child is so strongly associated with French cuisine that you might assume that her first defining moment as a foodie took place in France, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct.
The truth is, her earliest steps toward becoming a culinary connoisseur took place years earlier, when she was stationed in an intelligence network on the other side of the world. Writing about her years in Asia during World War II, Julia Child remembered, “That is where I became interested in food.”
Yes, America’s doyenne of French cuisine, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 15, discovered the joys of dining in wartime China, long before she set foot in France. Working for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA), a young Julia McWilliams was assigned to the base in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), around 1942 or 1943. This tropical Shangri-La was where she first encountered new foods like durian, a fruit that she described as smelling like “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert.” It was also where she met the man who would one day be both her husband and her sophisticated guide to the world’s pleasures: Paul Child.
Paul and Julia were later transferred out of Ceylon and over to China, to Yunnan province’s capital city of Kunming during the last throes of the war in the Japanese theater. The air route over the eastern stretch of the Himalayas eventually took the lives of more than 1,600 people and destroyed 594 Allied airplanes. But that didn’t seem to faze Julia, who calmly read a book on the flight and, upon descending from the plane, said with delight, “It looks just like China.”
It was in Kunming that Julia’s palate was first awakened, for she was surrounded by “sophisticated people … who knew a lot about food,” she recalled. During the two years she spent there, Julia said she and Paul “continued our courtship over delicious Chinese food.”
Historian and author Theodore H. White (“The Making of a President”) turned Paul on to dining in the “best eating places,” and Julia followed suit, enjoying the unique textures and flavors. She later remembered “nuggets of chicken in soy sauce, deep-fried or in paper; always rice, pork, [hot]-and-sour soup. The duck was always good, and everyone had a good time.”
She not only ate with great pleasure from the cuisines of China, Julia began to learn a variety of cooking styles from different parts of China, as well as Vietnam. “I am very, very fond of northern, Peking-style Chinese cooking,” she said. “That’s my second favorite [cuisine]. It’s more related to French; it’s more structured.”
Julia and Paul Child’s last meal in Kunming
Although there’s no record of what dishes the couple might have dallied over as they got to know each other better, what is known is the menu of their last meal together in Kunming in the fall of 1945, just before Paul was reassigned to Beijing, and Julia was transferred to Chungking, 900 miles away.
Paul described to his twin brother, Charlie, that they had eaten at a favorite local restaurant, a Beijing-style place called Ho-Teh-Foo. As farewells loomed, he and Julia lingered over spring rolls fried in sesame oil, napa cabbage with Yunnan ham, Chinese black mushrooms braised with greens and Peking Duck Three Ways (the crispy skin and then the meat served as the first two courses along with thin crepes, shredded leeks and sweet wheat paste; the bones turned into a soup with cellophane noodles, spinach and egg).
Julia’s love for Chinese food remained unchanged the rest of her life, and she once noted that she would be “perfectly happy” if she had nothing but Chinese food. However, she never returned to China after the war and she did not pursue the study of it, probably for the simple reason that in the early 1950s there were few books and fewer teachers in the U.S. who could have taught her much about this cuisine after her return.
But still, it is fun to imagine what might have been if things had been different, if Julia had found someplace like a Chinese Cordon Bleu to show her the way and become America’s guide to Chinese cuisine, instead of French. Just think of it … Julia Child whacking ducks to pieces with a giant cleavers on black-and-white television, heaving great bamboo steamers around her tiny studio kitchen, wishing her audience a hearty Manyong! as she signed off, and causing America to fall in love with the foods that she had adored all of her adult life, as well as the place that had taught her to eat well: China.
Photo: An ancient temple in Kunming, China. Credit: iStockphoto
Hosting a dinner party in Los Angeles often means having an actor present is hardly a rarity. They come in handy whenever home cooks attempt to re-create a TV show, especially over-the-top ones such as “Iron Chef” where dramatic interpretation is as vital as cooking skills.
A few years ago, a friend of mine and I went to battle — once with foie gras, another time with oxtail – and a few members of a theater troupe enhanced the setting with garish outfits, a smoke machine and lips moving out of sync with the dialogue. We were purists, staging the Japanese version of the show.
The missing ingredient was the music. Unlike others, we didn’t think to call the composer.
“I started to get a lot of e-mails from people, the funniest ones coming from people who knew me and had discovered I was doing the show,” says Craig Marks, who has composed “Iron Chef America” music for nine seasons. “They’d ask me to (burn CDs) because they were doing ‘Iron Chef’ competitions at home or at work for morale boosters. I got calls from fraternities and sororities, schools, religious groups. It was all very unexpected. There were enough of these requests that we got started on the project.”
The “project” is the commercial release of music from “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Iron Chef” on CD and as a digital download. CMS Media released the music in December just as “Iron Chef” was registering its highest ratings in its history. “Iron Chef America: Super Chef Battle” was the Food Network’s third highest-rated telecast of all time with a cumulative audience of 7.6 million viewers.
The release includes the opening themes to television shows, the scene setters that precede the battles and the meditative cues that accompany the tasting segments. The album also includes his composition for “White House Garden — A National Challenge,” an episode that featured first lady Michelle Obama.
Music to reflect global cuisines
There are two aspects of the show — the gladiator-ness of being a challenger, which is mostly featured on the record — and the visually pleasing presentations when you’re watching and listening to the judges. “My goal is to always totally shift gears, to bring out the emotional essence when they’re at the table savoring the food. I go for less specific melodies,” Marks said.
When Marks got the call to join the American translation of the kitschy hit series from Japan, he was busy writing for animation and ESPN’s “Sportscenter.” Making the show American required a cinematic approach to the music — he says the initial inspiration was the scores to “Backdraft” and “Glory” — while incorporating styles from the represented cooking regions such as India, China and Italy.
“The recurring note,” Marks says, “is always bigger, bigger, bigger… It has to be Julia Child meets ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship.’ “
Working in his studio in Chatsworth, Calif., Marks programs and performs all the orchestra parts while also playing the guitars, dulcimer and balalaika. Cellist Tina Guo and Dave Norwoods, on tabla and doumbek, join him. Classically educated and a hard rock fan, he is also involved with a Chicago classical music group, the Fifth House Ensemble, that aims to bridge contemporary rock music, the avant garde and classical music. They have performed his compositions and his arrangements of music by rock bands such as Korn and put that music on programs with works by Brahms, Schoenberg and Korngold.
Not much of that work comes in handy when he puts on his “Iron Chef” gear. “In the most ideal setting I turn off all of my classical training until I get stuck in a corner. Then I turn it all back on again.”
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
None of it was made for TV, he says, noting that about 80 percent of the projects filmed had been on the 2010 calendar since the beginning of the year.
The sixth episode of the season, though, is the one that will finally connect Calagione’s beer with cuisine. The episode, still to be scheduled, chronicles the Dogfish Head team consulting on a beer for the Batali-Bastianich food and wine emporium on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Eataly. “Watching them (Mario and Joe) get into the beer makes him hopeful that a lot more foodies will recognize the possibilities.”
We solicited Calagione’s opinion on how to partner food with the beers he offers year-round – the 90 Minute IPA, the 120 Minute IPA, Raison D’Etre, Indian Brown Ale and Midas Touch. (In 2011, they will also offer Palo Santo Maroon).
The IPAs, he says, work best as aperitifs, appropriate for cheeses, especially fatty and stinky ones. The India Brown Ale stands its ground with acidic foods such as tomato-based dishes, making it perfect for spaghetti and meatballs or pizza. Raison D’Etre is positioned as the ultimate steak or hamburger beer. The sweeter and maltier Midas Touch, made with white Muscat grapes, saffron and honey, complements spicy foods such as gumbo and chili.
Brewing is art
Dogfish Head is positioned on the TV show as an out-of-the-ordinary brewery with off-center products. That facet of the company was driven home on Dec. 8 when Dogfish Head announced the 2011 roll-out of 20 beers with limited availability. An ancient ale program of four brews, for example, runs May to September. Three different bottle-conditioned beers are released through the year, one month at a time; the seasonal brews — Aprihop, Festina Peche, Punkin and Chicory Stout – are tapped two or three months at a time with no two available at the same time. Next November, they will release a new beer, Brand X.
Production varies widely, from the hundreds of thousands of cases of the 90 minute IPA to as little as 3,000 cases of 12 ounce bottles of a specialty brew.
Their first brewed beverage was Shelter Pale Ale, made in 12-gallon batches in three small kegs with propane burners underneath that they brewed three times a day, five days a week. It allowed them to try multiple recipes and in 2002, seven years after they started, they opened a full-scale brewery in Milton, Del. In 15 years, they have catapulted from the smallest brewery in the United States to the 38th largest.
The growth that followed the move to a proper brewery was so accelerated that Calagione felt the need to put on the brakes — for three years. Between 2002 and 2008, the company grew annually in revenue by 40 percent as the beer was distributed to 31 states despite no national distribution network and of the 100 or so employees, only seven are sales people.
The TV crews arrived a year into the three-year plan to cut back growth to 20 percent through 2011. All the beer Calagione and his team is seen making is already allocated, a fact that he believes helps make the show a bit more honest and not a chronicle of a beer company planning an expansion.
“Knowing that there is a limited supply of beer, we hope this can be more of a celebration of renaissance of craft brewing,” he says. “We’re one example of 1,600 small breweries, and if we go to a second season, I think we will get to show more of our industry.
“The unwritten message is that brewing is an art form just like music and writing. The global, commercial beer world is dominated by conglomerates with no interest in unique liquids. The success of Dogfish Head is the same as all small craft brewers. We bring business to the human scale — it’s all about having conversations with your neighbors and your fellow brewers. Look at the locavore trajectory of the last five years or so and it’s not coincidental that it aligns with the breakdown of commercial industry.”
‘A good name for a beer company’
Placing that human element into a business environment was one of several story lines in a recent episode that covered Dogfish Head partnering with a surfboard manufacturer, artists installing a tree house on the brewery’s lawn and reminiscing with father about the day, at the age of 25, when he said he was going to become a brewer. They were on a walk in Maine while on vacation and his father, upon hearing the news, looked up at the street sign that read Dogfish Head Lane and commented that it would make a good name for a beer company.
The issue at the center of the episode though is what to do with two tanks of the 120 minute IPA that have failed at the quality control level, resulting in the lost of half a million dollars worth of product. After re-tasting and examining their options, they decide to pour the ale down the drain and then re-analyze their recipes.
“Seven or eight years ago,” Calagione notes, “that would have put us out of business. We always assume there will be some beer that has to be tossed but the budget line for that is not in the middle six figures.
“I had some trepidation is showing that story, but it’s the realities of a small business. Everything does not go in a straight line and when you take on a challenge, not everything works out.”
Brew Masters airs at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. This Thursday, Calagione explores creating an ancient Chinese ale.
There’s no singing for their supper, but Fox has found a way to incorporate the elements of “American Idol” into a cooking competition with “Masterchef.” The competitors’ naivete, unrealized dreams, hard- luck lives and irrational cockiness are all on display in the opening hour of the latest program from Gordon Ramsay, which is an experiment to see if kitchen acumen and professional advice can ferment into a star chef.
Tuesday’s debut of “Masterchef” (9 p.m.) does not dispense much information about how the show will develop, strictly showcasing the efforts of maybe half the 50 finalists. Each gives details of their dishes and presents them to the Simon-Paula-Randy team of Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot and Ramsay. Winners moving on are handed aprons instead of “Idol’s” yellow sheets of paper; they usually race to a room of waiting friends, family and fellow contestants. The winner walks away with $250,000 and a cookbook deal, but unlike “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef” or “The Next Food Network Star” there are no business opportunity prizes.
Passion for cooking ‘a very positive sign for America’
This could well mean that “Masterchef,” in the end, is not a cook who can work a line or design a menu. It just may be the person you want inviting you to their house next Saturday for dinner.
Bastianich, speaking on a Fox conference call Friday, said he was surprised by the “incredible amount of emotion and passion vested (by the chefs) into what food says about them. When you do this for a living you get jaded and don’t realize there is so much passion for cooking for people who don’t do this for a living. That really struck home for me. … It’s a very positive sign for America.”
The three restaurateurs were selected, Bastianich and Elliot said, for their personalities as well as their backgrounds. With editing — there is no live element, at least not yet — the personalities are magnified. Bastianich, whose Italian restaurant empire includes shops with Mario Batali and his mother Lidia as well a line of wines, is the stern, no-nonsense judge who appears to have higher standards than the others. Chicago chef Elliot is the easy-going guy in the middle, the one who sees promise in tasty dishes that are visual messes. And Ramsay is the cheerleader, goading each of the chefs to do better than the last one who presented well.
“I don’t have to try to be overly nice,” Elliot said in response to the Paula Abdul comparison. “For the most part that’s who I am. I try to inspire.”
Would-be chefs from backwater towns and big cities
On the premiere, it takes awhile for anyone to show they have any skill, inventiveness or connection to culinary culture. Mike Kim, a waiter from Redondo Beach, Calif., who shows up with his two brothers, enters contritely and then delivers great television by starting with a flambe. It’s no Beavis & Butt-head moment — his duck ssam wraps look delectable and receive raves from the three judges. It astonishes Kim, creating the joyful response that has historically held viewers captive.
A parade of folks from backwater towns and big cities display their wares, most of the dishes at odds with their presentations. The unattractive ones get winning marks in taste, the gorgeous plates usually are found wanting. In each case, there’s a heart-tugging story to give viewers a rooting interest.
The show is produced by Ramsay’s One Potato Two Potato company, the team behind his “Cookalong” special, but one that has no connection with “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares.” It’s the kinder, gentler arm of Ramsay’s domain — no doom ‘n’ gloom voice-over, no overly dramatic music or excessive repetition of the last segment’s key moments. The music is friendly, even gloppy, and Ramsay would rather dismiss a miscreant rather than dish out verbal abuse. It would cut into the amount of time he can spend inspiring the folks he believes in.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
Credit: Courtesy of Fox
Bob Tuschman was promoted to general manager of the Food Network just a short time before the “Next Food Network Star” attracted the network’s largest audience for a debut episode in its history.
With 12 years at the network — he started as executive producer of the early series “In Food Today” and was most recently senior vice president, programming and production — Tuschman has seen firsthand the evolution of the network. He also has programming and production responsibilities for the newly launched Cooking Channel that is also owned by Food Network’s parent, Scripps.
The new job means Tuschman will have responsibilities in business development, digital, marketing and culinary activities, balancing the needs of viewers whether they be cooks looking for Tuesday night dinner plans or folks looking to bring Eastern flavors to Western kitchens. Those subjects — along with competition shows, the Cooking Channel slate, taco trucks and booze — were covered in a recent interview.
Digital, meaning online and mobile content, is now part of your domain. When do you develop the digital side? Is it side by side with the development of a show?
The relationship between digital and programming is very intertwined. We view the digital world as the other arm of our programming. It’s part of the viewer experience, either online while watching or after watching. We think about what we can do online to enhance the viewer experience. It’s very much a part of our development of new programming.
Obviously it‘s crucial in the “Next Food Network Star“ show.
This is a show that people feel passionately about. They’re voting as they go along and they’re very vocal and not shy about expressing their opinions when they disagree with us or are not happy with something we have done. We have a live chat now during the show with my fellow colleagues answering questions. We like to have a close dialogue with our viewers and this is a good way to do that.
That one was easy to single out because it needs that closeness with the audience, it requires feedback to work. Does it make that kind of show more desirable, knowing you have an audience you can communicate with?
It’s ideal because people feel so passionately. Our talent, like Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, is up for (the online dialogue). Because of the passion for Food Network as a brand, we have a way to reach out to viewers. They tell us they don’t want it to be a one-way experience.
While “Next Food Network Star“has found hosts such as Guy Fieri, is there any sense that it should generate a star who could dominate the ratings? Instead, you have a competition show that is consistently your highest rated show. (The Season 6 premiere attracted an average of 2.5 million viewers, 1.3 million adults 25 to 54, according to Nielsen Media Research.)
They’re not quite equivalent because (“Next Star”) is a one-time-a-year event show. You have to look at it with a different eye from a week-in, week-out show. Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and
Dives”‘ is the No. 1 show after “Next Food Network Star,” but since (“NFNS”) is on only once a year, the anticipation is much higher. It has a different kind of viewership. “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” is
on four nights a week so it would not have the same impact as an event show.
How does the presence of the Cooking Channel affect the types of shows the Food Network will do in the future?
It won’t affect specific shows on the Food Network, but it will allow us to do a broader range of programming and to find different subject areas, different stars and different chefs. It doesn’t mean Food Network is going to do less instructional cooking shows. Our Saturday and Sunday block that we call “In the Kitchen” stays an incredibly strong and important day-part for Food Network.
It’s the backbone for so much of what Food Network is about in terms of helping viewers with cooking. We’re going to be able to play in a much wider field with the addition of a second outlet. The same team that books and produces shows for Food Network is also doing that for Cooking Channel. When we get an idea for a show or find a new cooking talent or get a pitch, we can decide if something is better for Cooking Channel than Food Network.
You have been there from the start, experiencing that brand loyalty from about 10 to 12 years ago. But there have been changes, most noticeably after that first wave of stars. What do you see in the current kitchen shows that‘s different from four or five years ago?
I think we’re looking for broader diversity of talent and topics. We had a large wave about five or six years ago with hosts who appeal to home cooks — people like Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten (aka “Barefoot Contessa”). We’re always going to have the home cook in mind, but we’re starting to bring shows for people who are slightly more advanced in their cooking than the average home cook. “Alex’s Day Off with Alex Guarnaschelli” or “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” — we think of them as Cooking 102. We hope to always be adding in more shows, more cuisines, more personalities to appeal to a growing audience with a wide range of cooking skills and interests.
As you expand, though, it seems that you would want to connect with current trends, whether it‘s the fusing of Latin and Asian cuisines we‘re seeing in California or the adventurous cooking done in Chicago at a place like Alinea. How do you gauge what‘s new and hot and what can translate to TV?
We distinguish between the trends that appeal to home cooks and are things people want to replicate in their own homes versus the restaurant trends. On Cooking Channel, there’s the show “Unique Eats” that profiles a lot of the most cutting-edge restaurants that are setting the trends. But that’s not necessarily for people sitting in their kitchens trying to figure out what to have for dinner on Tuesday night; they’re not thinking about Asian-Latin fusion for their kids that night. We’re not focusing on the week-to-week or month-to-month trends. We really focus in on solution-oriented cooking information, help people with their time, with their money, with ideas and inspiration. We don’t need to follow the trends that pop up every few months, but there are shows that might profile a trend. We’re covering food trucks in August with a competition show. That’s a very fun way of incorporating food trucks, telling people what they are about and putting them in a very entertaining format.
Anything else on the schedule that‘s a reaction to current trends?
On Cooking Channel, we’re putting in more ethnic cuisines. introductions for people looking to expand their palettes. There’s an Indian food made easy, French food at home, the spice goddess,
Caribbean food made easy. The Cooking Channel is where we think we can explore a lot of different cuisines that maybe not everyone is trying to master, but there are enough people in our viewership that we want to satisfy.
Other channels have broadened the palate by bringing in a travel element. So many of them become about the bizarreness of food rather than the culture of food. That‘s my interpretation, but how do you draw the line so it‘s not the tabloidization of food?
We want to cover food in all its aspects and all its glories. At times we will look at the most extreme aspects of food, but we do it in respectful ways. We have a show that’s coming back for its second season in August called “Extreme Cuisine” with Jeff Corwin. He does travel the world. He does explore some very exotic dishes, but it’s not “Fear Factor.” It’s meant to use food as a window into the culture he’s exploring. We’re always trying to find hosts who are smart, curious and respectful.
The other fringe element is alcohol. It seems like that subject has been tough, whether it‘s wine or cocktail trends, to translate on TV.
I don’t know how to say this without just saying “we love alcohol.” Clearly alcohol is a part of many people’s food experience. We encourage our hosts to make cocktails or wine pairings when they want to. We have “Drink Up” with Darryl Robinson who explores the world of cocktails. It’s a little harder for a weekly show on Food Network to look at, say, just wine. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself to television on a full show daily basis. It’s certainly an important part that we want to get at, so we encourage all of our chefs to explore it as how to have a party or what to drink with dinner on Tuesday night.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.