We Don't Need New “Stars;” Just Let the Old Stars Cook
Why am I still watching “Food Network Star?” I guess the bigger question is “Why am I still watching Food Network?”, but since that is a whole different topic for discussion, I'll defer for now and focus on the question at hand.
This is Season 10 for this dog and pony show that used to go by the name “Next Food Network Star.” They dropped the “Next” a few seasons back, probably when they realized that nobody emerging victorious from this goofy competition show was truly going to be their next “star.” They've also changed the format and selection procedure a couple of times, trying to figure out the best way to hand a contract to the talentless nobodies they've been touting as “stars.”
Honestly, they haven't had a real “star” since Guy Fieri took the prize back in Season 2. In astronomy, the luminosity and magnitude of stars is calculated on a complicated logarithmic scale ranging from 1 to 6, with 1 being the brightest and 6 the dimmest. If Fieri, whose annoyingly ubiquitous presence dominates entire nights of programming, is a 1, then where are all the other “stars” the network has produced through this mildly entertaining but ultimately irrelevant pastiche?
Season 1's Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, “The Hearty Boys?” There's a couple of prominent names for you. I was talking about them just........well, come to think of it, I've never talked about them. Where is Season 3 winner Amy Finley these days? Was she a bona fide “star” or just an embarrassing nova? Season 4's “Big Daddy” Aaron McCargo, Jr. is certainly a household name, provided your at his house. Melissa d'Arabian was a stay-at-home mom who might as well have stayed at home. I haven't “partied” with Aarti Sequiera since the day she went on the air. Jeff “Sandwich King” Mauro was a bust and what the hell ever happened to Season 8 “winner” Justin Warner? He never even got a show out of the deal. They stuck him on a one-hour special that nobody but his mother watched, and now he glitters dimly in the firmament, the Little Star That Couldn't. And the network execs dutifully gave last season's Demaris Phillips her six episodes on Sunday morning, and that was pretty much that.
This season's crop of future nobodies has got to be the worst of the worst. They may be responsible for a “7” being added to the brightness scale. The contestants that can cook have absolutely no camera presence and the ones that have a glimmer of personality can't cook. Lenny McNab – he of the cowboy hat and dinner plate belt buckle – is the only possible exception, but I don't see his so-called “gourmet cowboy” POV taking the country by storm. If he wins, he'll get his six shows in a time slot that nobody watches and he'll join the rest of the “stars” in lusterless obscurity.
So where are the Food Network's real stars? Well, three of them are wasting their time and talents “mentoring” flocks of wannabes instead of doing what they do best; cooking and teaching people how to cook. Alton Brown used to be a funny, edgy, quirky guy who had one of the best and most informative cooking shows the network ever produced. And now he's a game show host. People have been ragging on Giada De Laurentiis for years, saying she's nothing but a pretty face. So the suits have pulled her out of the kitchen, where she actually possessed incredible cooking chops, and turned her into nothing but a pretty face. As for Bobby Flay, one of the first and brightest stars on the network, he has been reduced to being a professional competition judge. Whenever the network wants to add gravitas to one of its silly contests, they trot Bobby out. I'm surprised they haven't fitted him with a black robe and a wig. “Here come de judge, here come de judge.”
These are the people we want to watch cook. We want to learn from them and to be able to recreate their recipes and cook like them. Back when my mom was in the final stages of cancer, Giada and her “Everyday Italian” were my inspiration. I was actually able to find flavorful dishes that Mom could eat that were easy to prepare and fun to make. That's what made Giada De Laurentiis a Food Network “star.” Nowadays, they still give her a bone to cook now and then, but mostly they rely on her to be the pretty “face” of the network. Same thing with Bobby; give him his own competition show where he can cook a little but otherwise make him the network's own personal “Mikey.” “Let's get Bobby to do it. He'll do anything.”
Wolfgang Puck saw the writing on the wall years ago and saved himself the indignity of being pink-slipped like Emeril Legasse was. And Mario Batali was getting his Crocs full of BS and bailed out before it got too much deeper. Talented chef Tyler Florence is technically still a “star,” but they've taken him out of the kitchen and sent him out to hang around in malls and chase after food trucks. Jaimie Oliver gave Food Network a go, but didn't really care about being one of their “stars.” Same with fellow Brit, Nigella Lawson. Anthony Bourdain took “A Cook's Tour” on Food Network, but the experience left a bad taste in his mouth. And unlike most of the other real culinary experts the Food Network has either dumped or dumped on in favor of a cadre of barely qualified small-time diner cooks or home cooks with delusions of grandeur, Anthony Bourdain has “No Reservations” (sorry) about telling it like it is. Bourdain says of himself, “It's not an integrity thing—I'm just constitutionally and emotionally and neurologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut.”
He really likes Food Network “star” Sandra Lee. He calls her “the frightening hell spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker” who “seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time.” According to Bourdain, network cash cow Rachael Ray is “selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough.”
And on the topic of Food Network programming in general, Bourdain calls it “a calculated break with the idea of the celebrity chef as a seasoned professional and a move toward an entirely new definition: a personality with a sauté pan.” In his best-selling book, “Medium Raw,” he expands on his feelings. “With every critical outrage — the humiliating, painful-to-watch Food Network Awards, the clumsily rigged-looking Next Food Network Star, the cheesily cheap-jack production values of Next Iron Chef America — every obviously, half-assed knock-off they slapped on the air would go on to ring up sky-high ratings and an ever-larger audience of cherished males twenty-two to thirty-six (or whatever that prime car-buying demographic is.)”
Food Network doesn't need to manufacture new “stars” through, as Anthony said, “a clumsily rigged-looking” glorified game show. That's not how they found their “old” stars. Emeril, Mario, Bobby, Giada and the rest never had to jump through hoops. They cooked their way to celebrity; and that's what they should be doing now. Never mind the “next” Food Network “Star.” Give us back the previous Food Network stars and just let them cook.