Although Food Network and Cooking Channel (both owned by Scripps and sharing resources and even some of the same programs) are collectively the 900-pound gorilla of food-related television, it’s amazing sometimes how little creativity they show in their instructional programming. They seem to think that success comes, not from imaginative or new approaches, but from finding some new and highly-marketable personality, someone like Guy Fieri or Ann Burrell who can move product. But they plug those personalities into one of two or three pretty-standard format. In the original format, it’s just the chef in a kitchen cooking and talking to us. There’s also a second format with a little bit of a story to it – “My friend Sally is coming over later, and I’m going to make her favorite dessert,” with some obviously-staged scenes at the end of the program where we see the chef serving Sally the meal and Sally oohing and ahhing over it.
There have been occasional exceptions to the format, most of them no longer on the air:
- “Emeril Live,” of course, featured a studio audience and a high-energy vibe keyed to Emeril’s personality. I don’t hold that against Emeril, because I think Emeril’s got a little bit more substance than Guy Fieri.
- Hosts like Alton Brown or “Nadia G.” (Nadia Giosia) who combine entertainment with cooking, incorporating characters and sketch comedy elements. But Alton’s “Good Eats” has gone out of production, and Food Network now uses him (wastes him) mostly as a host for its inane and repetitive food competition shows. Thankfully, “Nadia G’s Bitchin’ Kitchen” is still going strong.
- “Cooking Live,” which was hosted by Sara Moulton, was actually live (the “live” in “Emeril Live” referred to the live audience; the show itself was pre-recorded). She took calls from viewers and had to deal with mishaps or catastrophes in real time.
- “Hot Off The Grill” was an early Bobby Flay show that apparently had some behind-the-scenes friction. But as a viewer, I thought it was terrific – it was set in sort of a dinner-party atmosphere, with Flay cooking and co-host Jacqui Malouf, who played the part of the viewer, peppering Bobby with questions and getting him to explain what he was doing and why. Bobby would recruit the other “guests” at the party into helping him with routine chopping or stirring, and the “guests” often included a wine expert, a meat expert and so on, who could be called upon for their expertise when necessary. Flay can sometimes come across as arrogant and self-absorbed, and I thought Malouf punctured that a little bit and made him more likeable.
- “How To Boil Water” is a title that has popped up more than once in Food Network’s history. The original versions were standard single-host shows, giving both Emeril and Sara Moulton their first appearances on the network. Those were on the air long before I had access to Food Network. But there was a later version that featured a chef (Frederic van Coppernolle, later Tyler Florence) and a comic (Lynne Koplitz, and later Jack Hourigan, who despite her name was, well, a her). The premise was that one was teaching the other, which allowed Koplitz or Hourigan to serve as a viewer surrogate, ask questions, and so on.
- Mario Batali’s “Molto Mario” featured, in each episode, three of Mario’s friends sitting at a nearby counter as he cooked. Again, they were viewer surrogates, sometimes asking questions, and reacting as Mario served them their food.
- “Food 911” featured Tyler Florence traveling around the country to help viewers with their cooking problems. A typical letter might be from a wife trying to compete with her mother-in-law’s interpretation of some traditional old country dish. Florence would show up and teach the viewer how to make a tasty and authentic version. The show was was later remade with a different host under a different title, which I can’t remember to save my life.
I’ve mentioned the idea of viewer surrogates in cooking shows before, and I think they help keep things interesting. “Ask Aida,” in which Aida Molleknkamp cooked dishes based on viewer questions, was much more entertaining during its first season, when she had an in-studio co-host as a viewer surrogate, than during its second, when it turned into a standard single-host cooking show. (The in-studio co-host was a regrettably-hokey nerd stereotype, who sat in front of a laptop supposedly checking the e-mail for viewer messages and videos, but even so it was better than Aida by herself.)
I bring all of this up because I’m a long-time viewer of both “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country,” which are basically two separate half hours of the same program. “America’s Test Kitchen” is affiliated with Cook’s Illustrated magazine, while “Cook’s Country” is affiliated with its sister publication, also called Cook’s Country. Both are hosted by bow-tied Christopher Kimball, who runs the magazines and TV shows, and both feature the same supporting casts of chefs and kitchen experts. Each is presented in a sort of magazine format. One of the chefs – say, Bridget Lancaster – will demonstrate how to make a dish, explaining the process to Kimball. Then, we’ll have a segment where the kitchen equipment expert shows Kimball several different non-stick skillets and tells him which one the magazine recommends as the best value. Then, another recipe, with a different chef. Then, a blind taste test, where Kimball tries unmarked samples of dark chocolate and then is told whether his favorite matches that of the magazine’s testing panel.
The interaction between Kimball and the series regulars – all of whom are co-workers on the magazine, and all of whom engage in gentle teasing, enjoying the chance to needle their boss, Kimball, in front of a nationwide TV audience – is part of what makes the show fun. The magazine format keeps things moving and keeps it from being dull or repetitive. “America’s Test Kitchen” is the only show I can think of other than “Good Eats” that spends much time on kitchen hardware, surely an important part of culinary success or failure.
“The Chew,” which airs weekdays on ABC, also uses a magazine format and multiple hosts (including Batali). I’ve only seen it a few times, but I’ve enjoyed it. I need to start DVRing it every now and then.
All of which raises the question – why can’t Food Network/Cooking Channel come up with anything half this creative? Why can’t they shake up the format? Why are they locked into standard single-host shows, with over-theatrical hosts, usually chosen by means of “The Next Food Network Star,” trying to differentiate themselves with catch-phrases or gimmicks?
That kind of food programming leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.