It has been twenty years since the debut of the Food Network. I really didn’t think it was that long. It is probably the most watched channel in our household now , but I remember how radical an idea it was in the beginning. Accustomed only to occasional food shows on PBS ( think Julia Child , Madhur Jaffrey), we thought the idea of a channel devoted entirely to food was insupportable. That it has lasted so long and become so popular is an indication of the increasing interest in food and of how much the Food Network has evolved. In the early days, the shows were instructional in nature; it was like watching a laboratory demonstration. Now, the emphasis is on presentation and entertainment which I think is directly responsible for the increased viewership. I wonder though that, in spite of this , in spite of the increasing number of foodies, most of America still does not cook regularly at home and relies on fast food, on pre-cooked meals warmed up in the oven or on meals assembled from processed par-cooked ingredients.
I can’t say that I’ve been watching the Food Network channel from the beginning but we have been fans for a dozen years or more. In that time we have seen several changes. Those first few years, Mario Batalli and Emeril Lagasse seemed to be onscreen every time we switched on the TV. I am told by those who have eaten in Emeril’s restaurants in New Orleans and Las Vegas that his food is really good and he is , by all accounts , a very nice person. However, we got heartily sick of him and his ” BAM”. He was entertaining , yes, but his ubiquity was too much of a good thing. Mario Batalli I could never stand, and Italian food doesn’t interest me much.
The next chef to dominate the Food Network channel was Bobby Flay. He had a couple of shows on grilling, a throwdown where he challenged local chefs to a cook-off and of course he was one of the original Iron chefs on Iron Chef America. In Flay’s case , he initially came across as cocky but he has matured over the years and today, I find him very likeable. I respect him also for having reached the heights after his rocky start in life.
Somewhere along the line, it seems to me, the Food Network started emphasizing ” American” cuisine.Today , most of the shows emphasize fresh ingredients and an eclectic mix of regional and international cuisines. Even the Italian style food Giada de Laurentis cooks is transformed by American influences. This , it seems to me, reflects the trend in American restaurants; there are fewer restaurants serving classic French or Italian food.
The other very popular personality was Rachel Ray. Her Thirty Minute Meals seemed to be always on. She might not have had as many shows as Flay but she also had a talk show on one of the mainstream channels. I , for one , got very tired of her relentless perkiness. Flay and Ray are still very much present but, of late, their presence seems to have diminished.
As food programming has increased there are many more shows and personalities on the Food Network. There is no one dominant personality but there are some whose roles have expanded. Those on the way up seem to be Guy Fieri, Alton Brown and Robert Irvine. I like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives because it shows us the vast variety of food being dished up in America. I like the unassuming cooks who prepare these dishes and the pride they take in their product though I am taken aback by the size of the portions they serve. No wonder most of their customers are so hefty. I do not like Guy Fieri’s brashness. As happened with Emeril, it wears on me. Guy’s Grocery Games, his new show, is all right but I’ve had enough of Guy and I don’t think I’ll be watching. In the case of Alton Brown, my feelings have gone the opposite way. At first I found his shtick irritating but the man really knows food and he does bring a lot of energy to a show. His show Cut throat Kitchen has an interesting format though the handicaps that contestants are forced to work with oftentimes seem unfair. I like him better as a compere. On the other hand , I’ve always liked Robert Irvine and his Restaurant Impossible. Underneath that tough guy exterior and behind those massive biceps is a pussycat who really wants to help people. I am really enjoying his new show Restaurant Express.
Other cooking personalities I enjoy are Barefoot Contessa ( Ina Garten is so relaxed , so lovable and her food so beautiful ) and Giada de Laurentis. One that I was happy to see the back of was Paula Dean. The controversy she was embroiled in was unfortunate and I thought she was unfairly tagged as a racist but I never cared for her show ( unhealthy food, rudimentary cooking skills) or her personality ( smarmy).
One recent trend has been the increase in cooking contests. Iron Chef was groundbreaking in its time and its success led to the American edition which I think is an improvement upon the original. Chopped too was very successful and today there must be close to a dozen such competitions. There is even The Next Food Network Star to pick themes and hosts for new food shows. Of all these shows, I like Restaurant Express, Rocco de Spirito’s Restaurant Divided, and Chopped but not too many others. This contest format has become too common and it leaves me a cold.
What I would like to see is a show that combines food history and travel. I’ve read of a Japanese TV show in which they focus on a regional specialty food and follow it from its place of origin to the finished product and the dishes in which it is used. I think there was something like that once, a show hosted by Tyler Florence but it was short-lived. Too bad. Perhaps they will do it again, and better.