Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bam! -- The Food Network Top Ten

The Food Network, the only source of nearly 24 food television, does not get a lot of love from foodies or the blogosphere. You are more likely to see vitriolic attacks against its hosts and shows than anything resembling balanced criticism. Now, I've been watching the Network since the mid-90s and I certainly understand where the critics are coming from. The Food Network is as guilty of peddling mind-numbing schlock as any other network, but there are gems out there, so I thought I would show TFN some love with this list of the ten (or so) best TFN shows ever.

1. A Cook's Tour

Following up on Kitchen Confidential, his edgy inside look at restaurant life, Anthony Bourdain and a camera crew sought out great food in both likely and unlikely places around the world. In many ways, this is the show that changed food television forever. In a network full of people standing behind kitchen sets with preprepared food in the oven, this show took flight. It showed that the life of the eater could be just as interesting, if not more so, than the life of the home cook, who most of the Network's other shows catered to. Bourdain was funny, rebellious, spontaneous and inquisitive. He introduced fabulous characters and questionable eats.

TFN just began rerunning these episodes and the show holds up well. At that time, early in his celebrity career, Bourdain was cynical but not yet world weary. The locations and the entire concept were as new to the viewers as they were to him. The writing was succinct and humorous. Alas, it's a schtick that couldn't last, and his new, longer show, No Reservations on the Travel Channel, is too often contrived, over-written and filled with self-conscious navel gazing. It's like when your favorite punk band signs on with a major label...rebellion just isn't as fun when it goes establishment. Still, we have the reruns.

2. Iron Chef (Japanese)

Almost from its inception, TFN was looking for a culinary game show (Ready Set Cook was among their early attempts), but they had to look abroad to find one that would really capture viewers' imaginations. First shown in the US on public television in San Francisco, the original Iron Chef was a campy, over the top production pitting chef against chef in the vaunted Kitchen Stadium. When Food Network started airing the show, they created a cultural institution.

Iron Chef also taught its audience more about food and cooking than the average cooking show. Who knew there were so many uses for bonito? And I've always wondered why the American Iron Chefs never use fat netting.

I like the American version (see number 8, below) but it's just not the same. Somehow, the campiness doesn't translate and the menus and ingredients are less novel. Part of the fun of the original was the window it gave you into the tastes of another nation, both in terms of their traditional cuisine and how they interpreted international foods, and that element is necessarily lacking in the domestic version.

3. Good Eats

Alton Brown is one of the most competent and knowledgeable personalities on the Network. His long-running program Good Eats mixes food history, science, cooking and corny, pseudo plot-lines to present an ever-entertaining half hour of solid information and practical cooking. Like Julia Child before him, Alton teaches cooking by emphasizing techniques as opposed to recipes. He even has a nerdy cult following who are prone to quote him ("I'm not a cultural anthropologist.."; "Stuffing is evil;" etc.). Now, if they could just do something about the hokey opening graphics and music. It looks like something a graphic arts student did in 1995.

4. Dining Around

In the early days of the Food Network, TFN was still struggling to bring us something more than the "stand and stir" cooking shows that were its mainstays. One of the more innovative shows was Dining Around, starring Esquire restaurant critic Alan Richman and fashion writer Nina Griscom. The concept was a newspaper restaurant column...on television. Why not? Movie reviewers have television shows, and in fact, Dining Around borrowed the format of Siskel & Ebert's popular movie show. After showing a brief clip of the restaurant, the hosts opined on its merits.

Of course, televised restaurant reviews have some inherent limitations. For one, the program covered the types of restaurant reviews that might have appeared in the New York Times...largely high end. Combine that with the fact that they were broadcasting to a national audience and you end up with a show reviewing restaurants that 99.9% of the viewers will never visit, though I always found it interesting to see the hot new restaurant in Cleveland or Dallas or Vancouver.

Still, Dining Around was the only TFN show to attempt a serious look at the American restaurant scene. More importantly, it was the only show that involved actual criticism. Not everything at every restaurant was greeted with a "yum" or a semi-orgasmic "oooooh". This was largely because, unlike the cheesy restaurant-going shows that have followed it (including the nails on a chalk board program The Best Of, the insipid Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and the annoying panoply of Rachel Ray travel shows), the hosts did not broadcast from the restaurant with the chef standing next to them. I mean come on, you aren't going to give your honest opinion about a dish when you've got your arm around the chef. "Smile for the camera chef...and this dish sucked." Even Bourdain doesn't do that unless he's pretty sure the cook doesn't speak English.

Dining Around was typical of an early, low-budget cable show, but I hope the Network at some point will reconsider the idea of putting some sort of real food criticism on the air. I'd love to see Jonathan Gold host a show on taco trucks or the best tripe in town.

5. Ace of Cakes

Ace of Cakes is a reality program focused on the cake decorating talents of Duff Goldman and his hipster crew of bakers at Charm City Cakes in Baltimore.

To appreciate this program, you need to understand that it really isn't about food. While technically edible, the creations of CCC are more akin to sculpture. Indeed, I don't think I'd want to taste one. The cake itself appears to sit around for days being decorated, often with inedibles like wooden posts and frames. Every cake is also topped with a thick layer of fondant, a slightly sweet decorating paste that has the texture and consistency of vinyl. And the show's principles are never seen discussing matters gustatory. How does the cake taste? What would be a good filling? Do the customers like it? Not on Ace of Cakes. It's all about the look.

Normally, I would look down my nose at a Food Network show that has almost nothing to do with food, but if you view Ace of Cakes as a show about art, you get a different perspective. Charm City is not a bakery. It's an art studio whose medium just happens to be cake. Once you make that leap, there is a lot to like.

The sculptures produced by CCC are a feast for the eyes. They can be funny, endearing, sentimental or edgy. The strength of the program is that it is about the craft: how, when and under what circumstances these cakes are made. You see the creative process from start to finish, complete with last minute improvisations and trouble shooting, all managed by a collection of wry decorators who appear to have been lifted from a mid-1990s alt rock video or, perhaps, the movie Slackers.

And unlike most reality programs, this really is all about the art. There are no workplace grudges, smoldering romances or other frivolities. Ace of Cakes may be the least food-oriented show on the Food Network, but it's also one of the best reality shows on television.

6. Two Fat Ladies

What's apparent from this list is that some of the best TFN shows are the ones they don't produce. A BBC program, Two Fat Ladies featured Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson cooking what often looked to be barely edible English food. Again, the show was fun for its look at the cuisine of another nation as well as the quirky personalities of the hosts. It also shows that Anthony Bourdain wasn't the first rebellious TV cook to smoke and drink on camera.

7. Taste with David Rosengarten

A show from the Network's early days, Taste was, in many ways, a forerunner of Alton Brown's Good Eats. Rosengarten, who could battle Brown for the title of biggest nerd on TV, stood at a table and cooked, but he focused on information and the background of the dish and ingredients. His show had pretty low production quality, mostly him cooking in front of an overly sterile white background if I recall correctly, but he always had some good tidbits of information for the audience.

8. Iron Chef America

It pales in comparison to the Japanese original, but Iron Chef America still retains some of the Iron Chef energy albeit with less shiny outfits. Its best quality is the play-by-play by Alton Brown, though there is not much better feeling than seeing Bobby Flay get bested on national television. It's less campy than the original, but has more knowledgeable judges. (Extra points for anyone who remembers the short lived, ultra-campy Iron Chef USA on UPN hosted by...William Shatner). The curmudgeonly, sloth-like Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue restaurant critic and author of numerous popular food books, is one of the funniest personalities on the entire Network. This is a guy who should have his own show!

9-10. [Reserved]

It's sort of sad how hard it was to come up with the above best shows. The truth is, I got nothin' else. I'm thoroughly unimpressed with the endless cavalcade of celebrity chefs with their multiple shows: the Marios, Rachels, Emerils, Bobby's, and Giadas. I have no doubt that they are skilled professionals; I just don't find their shows the least bit interesting. I must admit to taking some pleasure in the deceitful ways of Robert Irvine...who pulled one over on the Network's top brass, but how many times can you watch a guy cook 500 chicken wings for a wedding. The Next Iron Chef seemed promising but turned out to be little more than a warmed over, none to subtle copy of Top Chef. I mined my brain for any other shows that merited mention here, and I couldn't think of one, so I'll reserve this space in the hopes that there will be future good shows, preferably one about wine and/or spirits.

The good news is that food shows are no longer relegated to the backwater of TFN and PBS. There are credible shows on the Travel Channel, Bravo and Fox. As more and more networks jump on the foodie bandwagon, there hopefully will be increased pressure on TFN to step away from the schlock. Until then, I leave you with the top 8.


Anonymous said...

Good list. I'm OK with Mario and Giada. Both make great food. I was actually surprised to hear Bourdain say that he enjoyed Giada's cooking on the show on an interview the The Amateur Gourmet (he also said he liked Barefoot Contessa!). And I quite enjoyed Next Iron Chef. It was a show that took cooking seriously, which I was surprised about since that's the opposite of Next Food Network Star. I also have a soft spot for Nigella.

peekpoke said...

I agree 100% with your comments, and the sad state of Food Network.

I would add Feasting on Asphalt to your Good Eats entry. It's far less gimmicky than Good Eat's has become. Alton is at his best live, off the cuff.

The saddest part is that shows like Taste have disappeared, never to be made available on DVD or streaming.

sku said...

Thanks for your comments John. I thought about Feasting on Asphalt, but I've only seen it once so I didn't feel like I'd seen enough to have it make the cut, though it did have potential.

Part of me wondered, though, if they were trying to force nerdy Alton into some bad-boy biker role a la Bourdain, which just didn't seem to fit.

peekpoke said...

If you've only seen the first season of Feasting on Asphalt, and not the DVD add-on, and not the second season. Then I would agree, it's a stilted weak show.

BUT, the DVD add-on for the first season, which is nearly FOUR HOURS long is far better than the actual show! It's full of non-scripted moments, like him meeting a guy cooking breakfast in a motel for his scooter riding club, or the Indian family running a motel who show him how they make "curry".

The second season of Feasting has more of these moments integrated into the show. I hope he has more casual material to include when season 2 comes out on DVD.

sku said...

Alright, John, you've convinced me. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

I loved Dining Around, especially when the hosts DIDN'T like something! Was a great show.

On another note:
Is it my imagination or do likable personalities seem to "pump it up" too much when their shows take off?
such as:
Way too strong southern accents...
Too many cutesy phrases and EVOO's...