The title of the Salon.com opinion piece screamed off the screen like Guy Fieri himself: “How one man destroyed the Food Network: Guy Fieri has made culinary TV into a viewer’s hell.”
Finally, I thought, as I read Farsh Askari’s commentary, I’m not alone in my assessment of Food Network. Then came Allen Salkin’s response, which is an impassioned defense of Guy, but equally critical of the Food Network.
While I agree with Askari’s opinion on Guy more, they both make valid points about Food Network. I also used to like watching the creative chefs ply their trade while I cooked dinner or relaxed on the couch afterward, but in recent years a bitter bite has taken hold of the programs.
For me the turning point came with the inception of Cupcake Wars, in which a snarky host presides over a kitchen where once-fun confections have become arms for cutthroat competition. (In fact, there is now a show called Cutthroat Kitchen.) Food Network used to offer comfort food for a world gone a little—or a lot—crazy. Now it serves up recipes of the same cynical, mean-spirited, snobbish ingredients that make up modern society.
I cut my television culinary teeth on Cake Challenge, where pastry chefs created astonishing cake sculptures based on a given theme. Artistic merit and taste determined the winner; the participants competed, but did not connive. Unfortunately, as the years passed this show became a buttercream Titanic, sinking under more and more onerous requirements until the cakes had to be towering, animatronic behemoths to be crowned champions. In fact, by the end of the show’s run, I think the cakes were the size of the Titanic.
Over the years I’ve also watched Iron Chef, Restaurant Impossible, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, Private Chefs of Beverly Hills, Food Network Star, Food Truck Wars, and Chopped. Some of these shows no longer air and the schedules of others are lost among the onslaught of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (“DINERS!, DRIVE-INS!, AND DIVES!!”), but I still enjoy Chopped.
The premise of Chopped brings four chefs together to create a 3-course meal from the ingredients in a mystery basket. Over three rounds, the chefs are “chopped” as their dishes don’t live up to the judges’ expectations until one winner remains.
Even in this show, though, there’s a creeping feeling that the judges are losing perspective, the way politicians lose all connection to “real life” or Kanye West to his own importance. War may be raging, disease running rampant, people starving, but Scott “no raw red onion” Conant or Maneet “I really wish you had…” Chauhan will glare at the chef as if he or she spit in the dish and say something like, “The braised boar was the most succulent I’ve ever had, but I don’t understand this orange slice on the rim of the plate.” The camera pans to the chef who, looking as if he’s just been caught at McDonalds, stammers some defense of his vision. Then Marc “all I want to taste is salt” Murphy nods his head in agreement with the utter embarrassment of the orange peel and levels the damning criticism, “and you should have used more salt. So for those reasons, we have to chop you.”
Being chopped for that lack of salt is no grain of salt to these chefs. For some the win and $10,000 prize means redemption in the eyes of their family (I think contract killers have more support from their relatives for their choice of career than chefs), a chance to open their own restaurant, pay bills, or give to charity. I like Chopped for a couple of reasons. First, it’s interesting to see how the chefs combine the mystery ingredients into a gourmet meal and to hear the running commentary of their process; second, I can empathize with these cooks. For me every night is a Chopped-style dinner.
Here’s a transcript of one of my recent episodes:
“Sometimes I like to listen to music while I cook. I have my earbuds in and I’m at the sink washing the lettuce. I turn to reach for the lettuce spinner when the unthinkable happens. My earbud cord catches on the sponge drawer knob, and my iPhone whips out of my pocket and crashes to the floor. At the same time the earbuds are torn painfully from my ears. I don’t have time for this! The silence is deafening. I untangle the cord from the knob. But I’m rushing and I just make it worse. How does it get so snarled in two seconds? At last it’s free. I bend over and pick up my phone; fortunately it’s still intact—a little dusty. I really need to sweep this floor. I reattach the earbuds and throw the lettuce into the spinner. While I pull the cord, I’m thinking how I can transform the macaroni elbow noodles.
“And then it hits me, to the pot I can add a little butter, a little milk, and a package of orange cheese powder. The processed cheddar will give the elbows a nice tang that I know my family will appreciate.
“Next I consider the chicken breasts. I’m running to the pantry. I open the door and see breadcrumbs. Suddenly, I have an idea. I open the fridge and grab an egg. I stir the egg in a bowl with a fork and sprinkle breadcrumbs into a pie plate. Between wax paper, I pound the chicken breasts thin. I dip each one into the egg mixture and then into the breadcrumbs. I slap them into the electric fry pan, hoping the crisp texture of the chicken will please the judges.
“If there’s one ingredient that’s a stumper, it’s the vegetable. I run to the freezer and pull out the basket. I find a bag of peas and a bag of broccoli. Something for everyone, I think. I know the peas will go for 4 minutes in the microwave; the broccoli 3 and a half. I know that to get all the components of my dish ready at the same time, I must get the vegetables nuking. I pour the peas into the 25-year old round microwave bowl, add a tablespoon of water, and settle the lid on top. I open the microwave and slide it inside. A single touch on the 4 button starts the oven whirring. While I wait, I grate Stop & Shop brand New York Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese into a Pyrex bowl for the broccoli. I’m thinking the shredded cheddar will be a nice complement to the processed cheese in the macaroni. Cheese makes everything better, right. (Except for fish, of course, I’m not a barbarian.)
“While the peas are heating, I pour the broccoli into the matching square microwave bowl and attach the cover. When the timer rings, I switch out the bowls and turn my attention to the chicken breasts.
“I see they are sizzling and golden brown. Perfect. I’m transferring them to the plates when disaster strikes! One of the chicken breasts slips off the spatula and lands on the floor. For a moment I’m paralyzed, but then I remember the 5-second rule. I quickly pick up the filet and put it on my plate. You know moms always get the dregs, so it doesn’t bother me.
“Everything has come together, so I plate the meat, put serving spoons with the veggies and pasta and walk it all to the judges. They eye their dishes skeptically, as if remembering the time I served arsenic-laced burgers. Before I even sit down, the kids are cutting their meat. Jenny reaches for the broccoli and Conor the peas.
“’Why won’t you eat peas, Jenny?’ Conor taunts.
“’Because they’re disgusting,’ Jenny says. ‘I like broccoli.’
“’Broccoli is just tree-like peas,’ Conor goads.
“’Just eat a few of the peas with a lot of the broccoli and then less broccoli and more peas until you have a larger ratio of peas to broccoli and you’ll get used to them.” This sage advice elicits nothing but an exasperated glower as Jenny carefully separates all the components of her dish with her knife.
“’Huh?, Jenny, will you eat some peas? Huh? They’re good.’
“Finally, Jenny looks up. ‘Conor, I don’t want to eat them!’
“Conor chuckles as he inhales his food and asks to be excused.
“Jenny finishes her meal in peace.
“I taste my linoleum-infused chicken and find I have elevated the dish. As I chew I consider ways I can imbue future ingredients with the same savory flavors. A little less cleaning, a little more clumsiness, I decide.
“I feel happy. Even though my plates weren’t perfect, I feel that I’m still a winner. I’ve survived to cook another day.”