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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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Mario Batali Walked His Orange Crocs Out of Food Network

Food Network? Why Not Call It “Food and Entertainment Network?”

There's all kinds of Internet buzz being generated lately by the “news” behind Mario Batali's departure from Food Network. It's not really news. Mario has been telling people why he left for years, but for some reason when he sat down with “The Atlantic” recently and repeated his oft-told tale, it suddenly became “news.”

So why did Mario tell Food Network where to go? First of all, they gave him the Emeril LaGasse treatment. Like Emeril, Mario was a major stud in the network's stable back when they still pretended to care about food. “Molto Mario” was a programming staple, as was “Emeril Live.” Then the network did a 180 and decided they wanted to be an entertainment/reality medium rather than a food medium and they gave most of their food stars the old heave ho, replacing them with hours and hours of mindless, brainless, talentless competition shows and worse.

Mario hung around for awhile after they axed “Molto Mario” because he was still a major player on the one competition show Food Network had that was worth watching, “Iron Chef America.” But it didn't take long for the idiots on the upper floors to screw that pooch, too.

It's a basic tenet of jurisprudence that one is entitled to be judged by a jury of one's peers. Taken to the food competition show level, that would mean that contestants should be judged by their equals; people qualified to evaluate them based on their own experience within the food industry. Makes sense. And that's probably why the powers-that-be stopped doing it. I mean, we're talking Wolfgang Puck here. Bobby Flay. Masaharu Morimoto. And, of course, Mario Batali. And some of the competitors they faced included names like Jamie Oliver, Tim Love, Chris Cosentino, Anita Lo, Ming Tsai, Rick Bayless, Todd English, Wylie Dufresne, David Burke, John Besh, Susur Lee, Richard Blais, and Jose Andres, just to name a few. These high caliber, heavy hitting chefs have a galaxy of stars among them. And in the beginning, they were being judged by people who knew food. Fellow chefs, food writers, restaurant critics. But I guess the network execs figured that folks like Dana Cowin, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Ed Levine weren't glamorous or attractive or entertaining enough to fit their new entertainment module, so they started trotting out actors and comedians and sports figures. Now Boomer Esiason might be a great panelist on Monday Night Football, but what the hell does he know about food and cooking? Other than the fact that he likes to eat. So Mario got pissed about the whole dog and pony show and hit the road. And rightly so. First, they unceremoniously kick his well-received cooking show to the curb then they add insult to injury by letting “skinny little actresses” (his words) judge his offerings as a chef.

I'm a cook, okay? I'm not a chef, but I am a knowledgeable cook. And I write a bit about food. But I would never in my wildest dreams consider myself qualified to sit at a table with one or two equally unqualified individuals and tell any one of the aforementioned culinary superstars that their dishes needed salt. Can you imagine a Little League coach telling Derek Jeter or Miguel Cabrera or Ryan Braun that their swing is a little off? “Yo, Peyton Manning. I don't actually play football, but I watch it on TV and I don't think you're holding the ball quite right.” Or, “Gee, Mr.Pacino. I really like your movies, but I don't think you really got a handle on that last character you played.” Okay, so everybody's entitled to an opinion, but when you're in a position to judge something, shouldn't it at least be an informed or educated opinion?

A lot of people don't like Mario, and that's fine. I like him. We're not best buds or anything, but I've seen him in person and I respect his talent and his ability. The whole shorts, vest, and orange crocs thing and the rockstar wannabe attitude aside, he knows his food. And that's more than can be said about the people judging “Iron Chef America” these days. I agree with him on that point. Many is the time I've sat there in my living room and said, “Who the f**k are you (Mario's words again) to be talking about (fill in the blank)'s food?” Come on, Food Network! Just because a person has openings on both ends with which to process food does not make them qualified to pass judgment on professionals with decades of experience in the kitchen, no matter how many entertainment awards they've been nominated for or what their Nielsen ratings are.

But sadly, as I said, Food Network has long since abandoned any semblance of a commitment to food or food education in favor of the latest glitz and glam of so-called “reality” TV. They might as well call themselves the “Food and Entertainment Network.” Or maybe, to get the priorities straight, the “Entertainment and Food Network.” Does anybody remember a fortunately short-lived FN farce called “Bama Glama?” If not, look it up. Whoever green-lighted that disaster should be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of Chelsea Market on a rail. And the process should be filmed and aired. After all, feathers come from birds and birds are food, so by Food Network's logic, such a spectacle could be considered food programming.

When speaking of his erstwhile employer, former Food Networker Anthony Bourdain once said, “Aspiring to mediocrity is not a good thing.” Tony's gone. Mario's gone. Emeril's gone. Wolfgang is “retired.” Kitchen savvy Ted Allen and Alton Brown are reduced to being game show hosts. Nigella Lawson, Michael Chiarello, Jamie Oliver, Sara Moulton.......all serious food people and all gone. I'm a serious food person, too, and although I'm not quite gone yet, I'm going.

People always say, “Remember when MTV used to play music videos?” How about this; “Remember when Food Network used to be about food?”

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