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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Taking Out Some Food Network Trash

I don't suppose I'd surprise anybody if I said the old Food Network ain't what she used to be. Once upon a time, you could actually learn about food there. If you were new to the kitchen you could learn how to cook and even if you were an experienced hand you could garner advice on how to cook better. The Food Network used to be about food. With a schedule jam packed with competition shows and “reality” programs, it's hard to tell what it's about now. Kind of like TLC. Remember when that used to stand for “The Learning Channel?” Populated now by bratty toddlers with tiaras, vapid cheerleaders, cougar wives, and the likes of Honey Boo-Boo, the only thing I've learned there is to not turn on that channel.

Oh, I'm still a Food Network junkie. It remains my “go to” station. When I turn on the TV, I always start at channel 231 before looking to see what might be on elsewhere. Unfortunately, whereas there used to be something on every night, it seems now that “elsewhere” is becoming an increasingly popular option.

I recently came across a blog post by writer Molly Dunn from the Houston Press entitled “5 Food Network Shows That Need to Go.” I find myself in complete agreement with Ms. Dunn's choices. (http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2013/01/top_5_food_network_shows_that.php.)

Her picks include “Mystery Diners” and “Restaurant Stakeout.” Same show, different cast of characters. I can't figure out what the network needed with one of these programs; I certainly can't fathom the presence of two. I agree with Ms. Dunn that both programs are hard to take seriously. The premise is flimsy and the situations so obviously studied and scripted that nobody with two active brain cells would believe them to be anything other than fake. Kind of like “professional” wrestling. Okay, so your restaurant is losing bucketfuls of money and you think you know who's responsible. Do you, A) confront the malefactor and fire him, or, B) call the Food Network and have them send out a phalanx of cameras, both overt and covert, to “secretly” watch the suspect while you sit in a dark room with a guy who sends in shills and directs them through unlikely scenarios in an attempt to confirm what you've already figured out for yourself?

And while we're on the subject of dark rooms, have you ever noticed there's nearly always an empty office or warehouse or shop or something right next door to these afflicted establishments? I drove past several restaurants in my city and tried to find one that had a conveniently vacant space adjacent to it. No dice. And yet Charles and Willie always seem to find a perfect place to set up their command centers.

Which brings me to another issue; I know that technology has advanced to the point where you can conceal a camera in a matchbox, but some of the “hidden” devices they display on these shows are about as obvious as a thumb in your eye. And nobody in the place notices? “Hey, that big honkin' camera stuck to the ceiling wasn't there yesterday, was it?”

My favorite line is the one the announcer sonorously intones when Willie Degel shows up for the “emergency meeting.” “These employees have no idea of who is about to walk through that door.” That's right, they have no idea. And they continue to have no idea even after he introduces himself as “William Jack Degel of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse.” Why should they know and why should they care? I mean, this isn't some world-class culinary figure like Gordon Ramsay. If a fat dude in a pink tie walked into my place during a staff meeting and announced he was Joe Blow from Blow Me Down Steakhouse, should I be impressed? And would somebody please help Willie with his wardrobe? The ubiquitous pink tie is bad enough, but surely he owns something other than that pair of white shorts he wears to nearly every follow up.

Ms. Dunn says she is “creeped out” by “Sweet Genius” Ron Ben-Israel. Me, too. I've seen Ron Ben-Israel on other shows and he seems like a pretty normal guy. But the persona they've stuck him with on this silly show is........creepy. “I am a sweet genius. Are you?” To begin with, identifying yourself as a “genius” is a tad arrogant, don't you think? And considering the various connotations of the word “sweet,” the way this ballet dancer-turned-baker says it is.......creepy. As to the weird ingredients and odd format alluded to in Ms. Dunn's article, I really can't comment. One episode of this show was all it took for me to decide that one episode was one too many. I even fast forward through the promos.

While we're on the subject of annoying program hosts, let me cast my vote for Justin Willman of “Cupcake Wars.” Also known as “Justin Kredible,” he bills himself as an actor, entertainer, and magician. He's done a lot of work on kiddie shows and maybe kiddies think he's funny and entertaining but I find him irritating and bordering on smarmy. He and that insufferably pompous French judge, Florian Bellanger, are the two main reasons I gave up on the show after just a couple of episodes. That and the tired, derivative format.

Melissa d'Arabian and her “Ten Dollar Dinners” also make Ms. Dunn's heave-ho list. She likes the premise but doesn't like the host. What can I say? Melissa d'Arabian is the product of Food Network's current “star” system, the same system that gave us the likes of Aaron “Big Daddy” McCargo, Aaarti “Paarti” Sequeira, and a host of other forgettable lesser luminaries. The real “stars” like Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Mario Batali, Alton Brown, Tyler Florence – even, heaven help me, Ina Garten and Paula Deen – aren't being discovered and developed under the aegis of today's network execs who seem to feel that still another goofy “competition” show is the way to populate the firmament. So you get what you get; six-week wonders stuck on Saturday and Sunday mornings with an occasional prime time guest shot to justify the network's investment.

Then there's Ms. Dunn's principal candidate for the hook, Sandra Lee. Like Ms. Dunn, I really wonder what she's doing on Food Network. I don't know where they found her, but I wish they'd send her back. Actually, I do know where. She was an infomercial host on QVC, known primarily for hawking her eponymous “Sandra Lee Kraft Kurtains.” Ah, but she did attend Le Cordon Bleu......for a week. Close enough for a Food Network star! Sandra Lee is a total construct; a wooden frame with a plastic facade. Her questionable culinary ability runs about as deep as her ersatz, synthetic Stepford personality. She won a Daytime Emmy not for her tremendous cooking skills but for her “Outstanding Makeup.” Woo-hoo! When I need to learn how to cook from a box, I'll just read the directions, thank you. With her proclivity toward processed, preservative-laden products, one might think she was related to Sara Lee – except “nobody doesn't like Sara Lee,” a claim Sandra Lee can't make. Ask Anthony Bourdain.

There are other shows that I'd like to see axed. “Health Inspectors” comes to mind. Never watch this show when you're eating. And don't watch it if you ever plan to eat out again. There are some things you don't really want to know. This one's a little contrived, too. So, let's say, for the sake of argument, that I own a restaurant. And let's say that I know I have a health inspection coming up. And I know that my place is so disgustingly filthy that it'll never pass. So what do I do? Do I, A) consult the health codes and regulations and clean the place up accordingly, or, B) call Food Network and ask them to send out Ben Vaughn with a camera crew to show the entire world what a clueless, ignorant doofus I am and to stand there with “stoopid” written all over my face as Ben “discovers” one unsanitary disaster after another. “Oh, you mean if I'm knee-deep in rat turds, I might fail my inspection?” Du-u-u-uhhh! This is “reality” TV at its unreal worst. In my state, and in many others, the law requires the presence of a ServSafe certified employee in every eating establishment. You can't tell me all these people don't know basic sanitation practices and require a TV show to come in and educate them. Besides, in my experience, health inspectors don't usually call you weeks in advance; they just kinda show up and catch you with your pants down. That's been known to happen, too, but I don't want to give Food Network any more ideas for new reality programs.

And then there's the infamous Food Network “overkill” factor. When they do luck up and find somebody with a little charisma who sorta knows his way around a kitchen, they stick him in your face until you're sick of looking at him. I'm not pointing fingers at Guy Fieri, of course, but in the next one week period from the hour of this writing, “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” will air fifty-six times and we'll be treated to an additional fourteen exposures to Guy on “Rachael vs Guy” and “Guy's Big Bite.” Seventy opportunities to watch Guy Fieri in seven days. Even his mother wouldn't watch him that often.

Under Bob Tuschman et.al, Food Network's programming is broken. But its profits are soaring. The network is pandering to the same audience that puts Honey Boo-Boo on a pedestal. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see a crossover; “In the Kitchen with Honey Boo-Boo.” The prevailing philosophy seems to be along the lines of you'll never go broke underestimating the taste or intelligence of the American public or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

And where does that leave foodie junkies like Molly Dunn and me? Living with our hopes, I guess. Hopes that someday somebody “upstairs” will wake up and smell the bacon. And continuing in the meantime to choose favorite dishes from an increasingly sparse buffet.

1 comment:

  1. Most of food network is crap. All these personality. phony setup shows with people who just want attention and some sort of fame. In addition to your and ms. dunn's choices, I nominate Pioneer Woman with the fingernails on chalkboard voice, annoying personality and her plagiarized recipes, well I can read the back of the box myself! What happened to cooking instructional shows as opposed to personality based " food entertainment", & competition shows filled with unknowledgeable narcissists.

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