Alton and Giada

I was thrilled, and blogged about it, a few months back when Alton Brown started his podcast, The Alton Browncast. One of the reasons I was so excited about it was that I thought it would be more like Alton’s long-running show “Good Eats” and his wonderful limited series “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves,” and an alternative to what seems now to be his day job as the Ryan Seacrest of food competition shows.

I have, as regular readers of this blog know, become sick and tired of food competition shows. Food Network ruined itself by moving almost entirely into competition shows, and now its sister channel,  Cooking Channel, is starting to catch the disease as well. I used to enjoy the competition shows; I was a huge fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I was originally a big fan of “Iron Chef America,” which Alton hosts. But they’ve been done to death – and that means they’ve had to become more and more gimmicky, and with more and more phony, hyped-up dramatic content. I’m sick of them.

I had hoped that “The Alton Browncast” would be Alton’s way of returning to his roots, and maybe represented a way of feeding his passion even as he paid the bills by hosting competition shows.

But Alton apparently considers the competition shows more than just a paycheck. The interview segment is the largest single part of “The Alton Browncast,” and except for ice cream mogul Keith Schroder every single guest he’s had has either been a competition show host, contestant or executive. Alton apparently still loves the form and is excited about hosting 43 different food competition shows.

That doesn’t mean the podcast isn’t worth listening to, though. Thankfully, the interviews aren’t exclusively about food competition shows. The latest episode, featuring Giada De Laurentis as the interview guest, gets into everything from gender roles to the nature of beauty. You also get a soap-opera-like tale of the six months when Giada refused to speak to Bobby Flay.  There’s also  news that Giada, Alton and Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten will be doing a live Thanksgiving dinner special together – and while Giada knows both Ina and Alton, the latter two have never met and each is intimidated about meeting the other.

The episode also, during Alton’s opening food talk segment, drops a bombshell about cooking pasta. When Alton was making “Good Eats,” he repeated the conventional wisdom that to make pasta, you need a huge volume of water, which you bring to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta. But Alton admitted that he’s now changed his mind on that – for shaped pasta, he now starts the pasta in cold water – and the pasta is done by the time the water reaches a simmer! That method may not be as practical for spaghetti, fettuccine and the like; long noodles sometimes stick out of the top of the pan until they’ve softened enough to slouch down into the water, but Alton said it would work for spaghetti too if you have a large enough pot.

In Giada’s honor, after the interview Alton talks about meatballs.

Listen to the episode here.

Allez cuisine

I’ve been a huge fan of Alton Brown ever since I first got Food Network and started watching “Good Eats,” within a year or two after its premiere in 1999. The show, now out of production but still in reruns on Cooking Channel, combines food, science and comedy. An episode about potatoes was a parody of “Misery.” An episode on stuffing / dressing used a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” metaphor as a formula for helping you combine ingredients and flavors. There were various recurring characters, and sometimes Alton himself appeared in character (my favorite being a gracious Southern colonel).

I’ve cooked more Alton Brown recipes than every other TV chef put together. My normal recipes for whole muscle beef jerky, quiche, and other dishes are the ones Alton used on “Good Eats.”

In addition to the Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” Alton also hosted two miniseries of “Feasting on Asphalt” and one of “Feasting on Waves,” some of the most informative, intelligent and fun food travelogue shows ever done.

I used to be a big fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and when Food Network began producing “Iron Chef America,” I thought Alton, with his wit and knowledge, was the perfect choice as host.

But there are a couple of problems. Food Network stopped being about cooking and became more and more about competition shows, and the competition shows became more and more repetitive, which meant they had to rely more and more on personal drama, hyped up by producers and editors, to sustain interest. And Alton seems to be one of the go-to guys for hosting such shows – “The Next Iron Chef,” “[The Next] Food Network Star,” and now – worst of all – “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show which actively encourages the contestants to try to win by sabotaging each other rather than on their own merits.

How can one of the smartest guys in food television get caught hosting this dreck? I realize he’s got a family to support, and I figured his thinking was that having a job was preferable to not having a job.

But in the latest installment of his excellent podcast, Alton has a conversation with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I like Alex Guarnaschelli but hadn’t kept up with “Iron Chef America” in so long I didn’t realize she was now an Iron Chef. She, like Alton, brings an intelligence and perceptiveness to her food-related programming.

Judging from their conversation, however, they don’t share my misgivings about competitive cooking shows. From the tone of this conversation, Alex Guarnaschelli is as thrilled to be a competitor as Alton Brown is to be a host. I just don’t get it. I think Alton is wasted as the Food Network’s answer to Jeff Probst. I want him to make the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt,” whatever that happens to be. The podcast is a great start, and has already become regular weekly listening for me, but I want more – and I suspect I won’t get more as long as he’s pre-occupied with the competition shows.

It’s a shame.

The man in the bow tie

kimballAlthough 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.

Knock, knock

I posted something similar to these thoughts in January of 2010, but I got to thinking about the topic again just now, and I think it bears repeating.

Cooking Channel (which was in the works in 2010, but not yet realized) should bring back “Doorknock Dinners.”

As you probably know, Cooking Channel is a corporate sibling of Food Network; to many of us, Cooking Channel represents the things we used to love about Food Network before it adopted its current 24/7 schedule of gimmicky competition shows. Cooking Channel has its own original shows, but it also shows reruns of the best older Food Network shows. I often watch “Molto Mario” while getting ready for work in the morning.

“Doorknock Dinners” was itself gimmicky, but I still enjoyed it, and I think it would fit in just fine with the other programming on Cooking Channel. I think they ought to put it back into production.

Here’s how the show worked: host and producer Gordon Elliott and a high-powered chef would come to a middle-class, suburban neighborhood, with a camera crew in tow (I guess that last part goes without saying, or it wouldn’t be much of a TV show). They would go door-to-door, unannounced, until they found a family willing to participate in the show. Then, the chef would go into the family’s kitchen and attempt to make the finest meal possible using only what could be found on site. I believe the chef was allowed to bring his or her own knives, but everything else – ingredients, spices and seasonings, cookware, utensils and appliances – had to be from the home.

Meanwhile, of course, Gordon Elliott kibitzed with the family and any curious neighbors who dropped by; hoped to get the kids to say something embarrassing about Mom and Dad; peeped into closets and bedrooms; and so on. It was all great fun, but you saw how someone with ingenuity could take ordinary ingredients and turn them into something special.

The show also helped launch a career. Elliott decided to film some episodes in the South, and a mutual friend put him in touch with a Savannah restaurateur named Paula Deen, figuring her outgoing personality would work well on television. I believe Elliott’s production company still does the various Deen family shows on Food Network and Cooking Channel.

Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth. Bring back “Doorknock Dinners,” if not as a weekly series than as some occasional specials. I’d watch it.

An open letter to Alton Brown

Dear Alton,

“Good Eats,” which recently wrapped production after 14 seasons, was one of the most inventive things ever seen on American television – funny, informative, and accessible. It was good for food, it was good for science, and it was just plain fun to watch. The show was, as far as I can tell, your own creation.

I knew that all good things must come to an end, and even though I was sorry to see “Good Eats” go, I looked forward eagerly to whatever your next project would be. I knew that you could do other formats. Your miniseries “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves” were travelogues that, while different from “Good Eats,” were just as good.

You may still be planning something great. I hope so. But it worries me that you seem to be ramping up your participation in Food Network’s competitive cooking shows.

I will admit it – I was a fan of the original, Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I loved the first few seasons of “Iron Chef America.” They were goofy fun, and you were a perfect choice for “Iron Chef America,” bringing your wit and knowledge to a play-by-play role.

But food competition shows have become redundant, repetitive, and overblown. They’re part of the reason I rarely watch Food Network anymore, having sought refuge in Cooking Channel, which is what Food Network used to be. (It even airs “Good Eats” reruns.) And in a crowded marketplace of food competition, the only way to stand out is to try to hype and overhype the soap-opera, professional-wrestling aspects of the competition. I felt like “The Next Iron Chef” was a waste of your talents, and now you’re barging headlong into the long-standing “Food Network Star” (formerly known as “The Next Food Network Star”) franchise.

Alton, I realize you have to earn a living, but this crap is beneath you. It’s so far beneath you it’s not even funny. The promos refer to you, Bobby Flay and Giada DeLaurentis as “food icons.” Well, you didn’t become a food icon by hosting crappy “reality” shows, and if crappy “reality” shows are the future of your career, you won’t be a food icon for long.

Please figure out some way to move in another direction. We’re not waiting for the next Food Network star, prancing around the kitchen spouting Guy Fieri-style catch phrases. We’re waiting for the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt.”

Please, I beg you, move on – even if it means switching networks.

Please your customers, not your peers

I was an early fan of Rachael Ray, then went through Rachael Ray burnout, but I have to say I really love the answer she gave to a question in an AV Club interview. Anthony Bourdain, who I really enjoy, used to use Rachael Ray as the personification of the dumbing-down of Food Network (the way I use Guy Fieri). Bourdain eventually shifted most of his wrath to Sandra Lee. Anyway:

AVC: There are people out there like Anthony Bourdain who do criticize that kind of “everyday cook” philosophy that’s on the food networks. But when I talked to Bourdain he said he can’t make fun of you anymore because you sent him a gift basket.

RR: Nah, he’s funny. I didn’t mind a bit either way. He’s also said a few nice things over the years. But you know what? Not everybody is supposed to like everybody on the playground. You gotta be thick-skinned about that. I love Tony Bourdain. I love his books, I love him, I love his attitude. I think he’s fantastic. Whether or not he likes what I’m doing that week in my life, or the food that I’m making at that moment, that’s Tony’s choice. It shouldn’t affect my decision about whether or not I like his work. Otherwise I think I’m being immature and mixing up the two. But regardless, that’s not my job and it’s not who I work for. I work for the people who do want that type of programming or do want to cook my type of food.

[snip]

But I think that people over the years have wasted so much time asking me about Martha [Stewart] or Tony and all this. I’m like, it’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever entered my mind for five seconds if somebody else wasn’t putting it there. 

I mean, those aren’t the people you work for. I am a waitress at heart. I work for the people that I’m there to serve …. I think that anyone who spends their life trying to make other people happy or impress their peers rather than their customers are going to have a very short-lived career.

Not bad advice.

Gummy cuisine

I was a huge fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and for a good while I was a fan of “Iron Chef America,” especially because of the involvement of Alton Brown.  But as Food Network became obsessed with a glut of food competition shows, I got tired of the phenomenon. And, strangely enough, I was never really a fan of “The Next Iron Chef,” although I can’t really explain why. One of the few times I did watch it, a chef who I thought behaved like a total jerk (*coff*JoseGarces*coff*) ended up winning. Yes, it’s a cooking contest, not a popularity contest, but that’s sort of the point – I’d rather the producers pick an Iron Chef who is both talented and likeable.

Anyway, when Cooking Channel debuted – with everything I used to like about Food Network – I started watching it, and now I rarely watch Food Network at all. (Even Alton’s “Good Eats” reruns have moved to Cooking Channel).

But tonight, with nothing else to watch and not ready to go to bed just yet, I’m watching an episode of “The Next Iron Chef.” This season, unlike previous seasons, is an all-star edition featuring well-known chefs, most of them already current or past Food Network or Cooking Channel personalities. (They stole that idea, like much of the “Next Iron Chef” format, from “Top Chef.”) They’re preparing two dishes – one sweet, one savory – and each of them has been assigned a movie theater snack or candy as a secret ingredient. Alex Guarnischelli, who apparently won last week’s episode, got to choose her own candy – chocolate-covered raisins – and then assign each of the other chefs with their treats, which included cinnamon “red hot” candies, gummies and those super-sour-coated sweet candies, as well as popcorn and root beer. Surprisingly, Chuck Hughes got poor marks for his popcorn dishes; you’d think that popcorn would have been the least-objectionable of the options for savory cooking.

Anyway, this episode is relatively entertaining, and several of the participants – like Guarnischelli and Michael Chiarello – are chefs whose programs I’ve enjoyed in the past. I might tune in again some time between now and the finale.

There was also a foodie theme to “The Simpsons” tonight, with guest voices from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali.

Bitchin’ Kitchen

I had a Facebook conversation about Jacques Pepin with one of my “Cash On Delivery” castmates, Sharon Kay Edwards, the other night . Apparently, one of NPT’s secondary digital channels carries his most recent cooking show. I don’t get the secondary channels from my satellite provider; Sharon, on the other hand, doesn’t get any of the cable channels, so she can’t watch Food Network or Cooking Channel. I told her I really enjoyed chefs like Pepin who know what they’re talking about, as compared to some of the catchphrase-spewing attention hogs on Food Network. (Mr. Fieri …. paging Mr. Fieri ….)

One of the reasons I like Cooking Channel is that its chefs (like the ones on public TV) tend to be lower-key, more about cooking and less about self-promotion. But one of the exceptions happens to be one of my favorites: “Bitchin’ Kitchen.” This is something unique – part cooking show, part comedy performance. It started as a series of web videos before being picked up as a TV show.

Nadia Giosia (billed as “Nadia G.”) hosts the show in character, as a sort of Italian biker chick. (That’s probably a bad description, so feel free to provide a better one.) But it’s obviously a character, and she even has goofy supporting characters who provide supporting information about various ingredients. But the show is actually quite serious about its cooking; the recipes are solid, but presented in an accessible fashion, with explanation of terms and so on. (It’s a great entry-level cooking show, and I mean that in a positive way.)

Each episode has a theme, like meals to console you after a breakup, meals to serve the in-laws, low-cal meals to serve your overweight spouse, and so on. There’s sometimes a little playful, but not entirely unserious, life lesson mixed in.

Maybe I’m off-base and only trying to justify my love of the show, but I think there’s a difference between Nadia G. – who uses humor and fun in the service of the content — and the Food Network people, who too often seem to be promoting themselves instead of what they’re cooking.

Then again, the other great example of comedy mixed with cooking is on Food Network – Alton Brown’s “Good Eats,” which unfortunately is about to go out of production after a dozen years of Peabody Award-winning brilliance.

This recipe is a weiner

One of the great things about Food Network and Cooking Channel is that they’re very good about putting the recipes from all their shows online, where they’re immediately searchable. The only exceptions are a few shows produced by outside companies that place some sort of restrictions on how many recipes can be published online, or on how long they can be left online.

This thoroughness, however, has sometimes been carried to the extreme. For example, a TV chef might talk about all of the elements of a meal, or about a day’s worth of food and snacks, and in the course of that discussion the chef might mention something which is not so much a recipe as a way of serving an already-prepared product. In some cases, somewhat absurdly, Food Network has posted such non-recipes online alongside all of the real recipes from the episode in question.

For several weeks now, the web site Food Network Humor — dedicated to mocking all things Food Network — has been calling attention to “Ridiculous Food Network Recipes” for things such as dark chocolate. The readers of the humor site, alerted to the absurd non-recipe, head on over to the official recipe page and leave snarky comments about it.

Someone at Food Network is apparently a little thin-skinned about this, apparently, because whenever it happens the non-recipe and the snarky comments get taken down and that URL is redirected to some other page on the site — another recipe by the same chef, or what have you.

The latest such fiasco: Michael Chiarello’s hot dog recipe. As I write this, it’s still up at the Food Network site, but who knows how long it will last.

Good Eats and the Good News

I am home sick. I’m supposed to be lying down – and I will be again, in a few minutes – but I had to check my e-mail.

My e-mail contained a notice of a new Twitter follower. I’m still not exactly sure who he is, but we have some Twitter contacts in common, so I went to check out his profile page.

I’m glad I did; he had a link to this article about Alton Brown. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I’m a huge fan of Alton’s – but apparently, I wasn’t a huge enough fan to know that Alton is a Christian:

When I go to New York and I tell people I am going to church tomorrow, people take a couple of steps back from me. What I’ve learned to do is go ahead and take two steps forward. But yeah, it’s tough, and there have been times when I’ve broken out in a sweat a little. I still feel a funny little tinge in my stomach when I’m out to dinner with my wife and daughter in New York. We’ll go to dinner and we’ll be sitting around the table and we’ll say Grace. You know what? People are going to stare at you. I used to feel really self-conscious. But I’ve gotten to a point where I think, nah, I’m not going to feel bad about that. I’m not going to apologize about that.

It’s a nice article, and a pleasant surprise. One thing that struck me: So many people think – falsely – that science and religion have to be at odds. I think one of the interesting things about Alton is that “Good Eats” is, in large part, a show which popularizes science.

One of the earlier episodes of “Good Eats,” the one about casseroles, took place at a little white country church – a United Methodist church, which they took pains to identify by name through an on-screen graphic. The church reminded me of a lot of the churches my father used to pastor. Of course, all that proved was that Alton had been exposed to religion, and (given that he grew up in Georgia) that wasn’t too unexpected.

So, good for Alton. Although, I have to say, I’ve gotten a little tired of “The Next Iron Chef.” Why are they doing another one so soon? Is one of the existing Iron Chefs leaving? How many Iron Chefs does one network need? I didn’t watch the last “Next Iron Chef” except for the last couple of episodes, and I really didn’t like the arrogant Jose Garces, who ended up winning the thing.

Now I’m suddenly even sadder that “The Wittenburg Door” is in limbo. At this point, I would certainly have been calling Bob Darden to try to pitch him an interview with Alton, who would have fit the magazine to a T.