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In 1968 when New York magazine was launched as America’s first city weekly and I became its restaurant critic, there were few passionate foodies, indeed the word did not even exist. Today Americans are obsessed with food and dining out and chefs as matinee idols. Many thousands never take a bite without rushing to critique what they’ve eaten in the ether world. And legions are glued to television, ipad and itsy bitsy smart phone screens eating up video food shows.
Are they hungry? Are they dieting and find food TV is a calorie-free way to stuff themselves vicariously? Are they cooking tyros studying the masters to master their cutting style and flavoring finesse? Or are they watching instead of cooking? Are they fans, worshipping idols as they do basketball giants, baseball heros, the top seeded tennis stars? Has food, watching it, eating it, cooking it, talking about it, replaced sex?
We have chefs on TV eating larva, screaming at misguided restaurateurs, trying to inspire younguns’ to eat veggies, crossing deserts to taste camel on skewers, discovering Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow, racing to beat the clock in every manner of competition, hatcheting naïve grill cooks and misguided mom-and-mop restaurateurs, building cupcake worlds and pastry castles and weeping over broken spun sugar bows. Freud only knows what it all means.
Jonathan Waxman, who brought the California style of cooking to New York at Jams in 1984, and honors a similar simplicity now at Barbuto in the Village, thinks chefs are the newest sex symbols. «Viewers respond to chefs who are funny, articulate and yes, better looking. We seem less jaded than top sports figures, we are more down to earth.»
Why so many food shows? Is the phenomenon just another symptom of communication expansion… You might equally ask why so many ditzy housewive shows? Why plastic surgery makeovers, pawn shop expose and hoarders, storage unit auctions, dysfunctional families eager to undress before the camera, survivors sabotaging each other? People just like you. People just like me. (Please, I hope not.)
It might be as simple as the explosion of cablevision and satellite, the competition for advertising dollars, the hunger for content, that reality is cheaper to deliver than a scripted comedy or drama. That many a jaded viewer has had enough police procedurals, law and order, fictional nurses and doctors on illegal drugs and made-up dysfunctional families. That food is a compelling common denominator for the attention deficit viewer as well as his kids. Cooking is the perfect sport for geeks and nerds if you decide to try it at home. You only need a modicum of coordination to not chop off a fingertip.
So of course I would sign up to be a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. Judges don’t have to worry about lamb shanks that don’t defrost or ice cream that fails to freeze. Judges are rarely humiliated on camera. Miss the current revolution? Not me.
Edward Burke, a supermarket executive with a blog called View from the Floor, thinks food show worship has become the modern-day, all-welcoming ecumenical church. «We have the hagiography in the flesh drawn together in battle in Kitchen Stadium and elsewhere, and now amateurs allowed to battle for a restaurant of their own with the modern day saints as judges. It has supplanted the euphoria of religion.»
His colleague, Steve Jenkins, Fairway supermarket’s iconic cheese meister, disagrees. «It’s just about people humiliating other people and that is why food shows have become so popular. «People love to partake in revenge, and they love to feel ennobled by their magnanimous pity for underdogs. Food is just an appealing theater prop.»
Fan worship, appetite suppressant (or stimulant), modern-day lions against Christians, displaced religiosity, a distraction from not-enough-sex… whatever it is for the viewer, it can be an addiction too for the chef. Once a serious chef rarely left the kitchen and an occasional chef’s cookbook might mean a gig on the Today Show and a trickle of curious new customers. Now Iron Chef is just the beginning followed by multiple shows on multiple networks, provoking contracts for a new cookbook every year, endless tweets to legions of followers and intimacies on FaceBook. The star chef who actually maintains touch with his kitchens and can be spotted in chef’s whites in his restaurant is a magician. Some like Rocco DiSpirito seem content to dispense with a restaurant altogether. The camera is sufficient acclaim.