I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Pepin lately. My friend Dave introduced me to a website called Twitch, which generally broadcasts video games. They also have a couple of live streams every week (and some daily) which include older cooking shows and even 24-hour marathons of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. While I would most definitely rather put a gun to my head than sit at the computer and watch someone else play video games, the streams they offer are pretty cool. The food channel includes Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, a show from the early 2000’s hosted by the both of them called Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Great Chefs, A Taste of History, and a few other ones less noteworthy. Most are from the 1990’s and all of them are former PBS broadcasts, which is why they are allowed to be streamed.
Cooking shows were always on in my house. My mom is a great cook and baker, and many a mornings were spent watching the Food Network, and before that, PBS. I do not remember it, but when I was little in the early 90’s, I apparently loved watching reruns of The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr, which also must have been running in syndication on PBS. I used to love the Food Network (remember when Al Roker had a show on there? That was great!) but in recent years have witnessed its steady decline by way of actual programming quality. Watching chefs like Jacques Pepin host his show made it glaringly obvious just how terrible much of the Food Network is today. I don’t even like a lot of what Jacques is cooking, but I feel that I could learn more from 5 minutes of him than an entire day watching the Food Network.
Old-school TV chefs like Jacques were always concerned with two things: food and teaching. People often regard the generalized “French Chef” as one who is stuffy and traditional; someone with an inflated ego and zero charisma. On the contrary, Jacques is actually quite soothing. His tone of talking and teaching while he cooks is relaxed and conversational. The food is the star of the show. He is just there to demonstrate to you how to do it and make recommendations along the way. The same could be said for Julia Child, and if I had to pick one Food Network chef who actually fits the same mold, Ina Garten.
Most of today’s TV food people are annoying, over-the-top personalities who care more about pushing their own ego, image, and catchphrases than actually cooking. There is no more striking example than Guy Fieri, who brings me to nausea with his every utterance of “On point!” or “Takes you to Flavor Town!” and how his voice shrieks whenever he is enjoying something, as if to turn up his own personal volume so you see him and him alone and forget all about the food. His hair style screams “Look at me!”. The way he walks around, his mannerisms, everything, are indicative of someone who desperately needs attention. Loud, loud, loud.
How about Rachel Ray who has seemingly built a career off of the phrase “EVOO”, which she then has to tell us immediately after that it stands for extra virgin olive oil. Well, if you have to tell us what your abbreviation stands for, then why use an abbreviation at all? I cringe whenever someone other than her uses that phrase, as if they are trying to emulate her. Hell, I even cringe when she does it because it is so pointlessly stupid.
Can we move on to Alton Brown, the food genius? It’s a shame, because to me, his superhuman intelligence is wasted by his personality. He’s the smug, arrogant, know-it-all you wanted to see beaten up and shoved into a locker when you were in high school. No one else could host Cutthroat Kitchen besides him, because a show were fellow egomaniacs have to sabotage each other while cooking through his monstrous maze of challenges and asinine ingredients demands someone whose brain is wired like a mad scientist.
Then there’s Chopped, where the pompous, petulant Ted Allen (who never actually cooks anything and whose only published cookbook was a hundred pages of salad recipes) assists the grimacing, self-serving, megalomaniac judges in denigrating the contestants who probably messed up their cooking because they were too busy talking smack to each other or telling us how wonderful they are. Yes, from beginning to end, Chopped is nothing but an exposition of human arrogance. The snotty judges sit there like kings on a throne, who have flown in on an angelic chariot from the heavens to bestow their forbidden culinary knowledge upon us, who if not pleased will unleash the wrath of Zeus on the poor peon contestants. But then again, how often do we feel sorry for any of the cooks? In the opening, they do nothing but brag about themselves. How they are God’s gift to the world and the other contestants have no chance. Either that or they give us a melodramatic sob-story in order to elicit sympathy. It’s a perfect portrait of the world we live in.
What happened to cooking shows? Does every one need to be a competition or feature a high-energy chef buzzing around the kitchen firing off catchphrases? Is anyone actually allowed to just stand there, cook, and have a relaxing conversation with the audience? Maybe they grandfathered Ina Garten in. It would seem that after she retires, the last bastion of real cooking television will crumble and give way to a marathon of competitions and self-serving arrogance. Maybe this generation is bored by the likes of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, and others like them. Maybe television chefs need to move at a frenetic pace in order to hold viewers’ attention. We see it on every channel. Any show that requires thinking of any kind or needing the viewer to have an attention span longer than a gnat gets axed in favor of some reality garbage.
The sad part is that this is all a byproduct of our culture. Look at the way people treat each other in the real world and you will see that on Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. Look at how an adult can act like an immature brat and you see it in Guy Fieri and millions like him. Pop-culture is always a reflection of the world which it serves, therefore it should be no surprise to anyone why television is heading in the direction it is. Out with the old, in with the new. We can’t just have cooking, it needs to be done with an alpha, macho edge to fit society’s raging.
Watch Jacques or Julia and you will learn to cook. Watch the Food Network and you will learn to be an asshole. It’s as simple as that.