Is The Food Network Simply a Wasteland?

By Ezra Klein

I love What Would Brian Boitano Make. I’ll watch Iron Chef if it’s on. I like the Barefoot Contessa, and I watched the bacon-themed episode of “Best Thing I Ever Ate” on Rosh Hashana. But am I missing something? Or does the Food Network, well, suck?

Their Top Chef knock-off, Chopped, seems like public access television. The rest of the network appears devoted to Bobby Flay challenging someone for the local clam-slurping title, or that fat guy with the bleached blond hair screaming about how much he loves butter. Or maybe that’s Paula Deen? Sorry. I get confused.

Worse, it’s not as if television is bereft of good cooking shows. They’re just not on the Food Network. Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters are great. PBS has a bevy of great shows, including the IFA’s beloved Made in (e)Spain! Anthony Bourdain wanders around without reservations on the Discovery channel. All of these shows are better than anything on the Food Network that doesn’t feature a former Olympic skater. And from what I understand, the Food Network isn’t even committed to its single shot at transcendence.

But this isn’t just a rant. I’m an optimist. I believe I’m probably missing some brilliant bit of programming somewhere in the Food Network’s lineup. Aside, of course, from What Would Brian Boitano Make? Tell me where it is.

41 responses to “Is The Food Network Simply a Wasteland?

  1. This take is mostly spot-on, but Good Eats with Alton Brown is one of the better shows on TV, period. It has a kind of 3-2-1 Contact level of production values and a severe dad-joke level of humor, but those things combined with AB’s serious knowledge make it great TV, even if not every recipe is very practical.

  2. I mean, yes, there’s a lot of crap on Food Network. Tuning in at any random time means you might be stuck listening to creepy clown Marc Summers talk about some industrial corn syrup-based candy on Unwrapped.

    But now that I have DVR, there are some shows that I like to build up a little store of, like Iron Chef and Ace of Cakes and Barefoot Contessa and both of Giada’s shows – shows that are entertaining and/or informative. DVR is my new way to watch FN.

    I also used to like to gawk at the horribly tacky things Sandra Lee would come up with on Semi-Homemade. Not sure if that show is on anymore, but for me it was a so-bad-it’s-good kind of show.

  3. chopped is one of the worst shows i’ve ever seen i think. i like bobby flay, i wish he cooked though. and mario should have a real cooking show. i know you were disappointed with babbo, ezra, but he knows as much about italian food as anyone in america, and Molto Mario used to be endlessly informative. in general, like Pollan noted, so many of these shows now are about watching people eat rather than watching people cook, which is a real shame. (not that i didn’t use diners, drive-ins, and dives to help plan my road trip around the south.)

  4. Ezra
    You are right, the Food network sucks. They have become completely complacent. To be sure, they’ve done a great job over the past ten years elevating food into a major cultural issue and pastime, they”ve made cooking and food sexy and cool again. They’ve brought men into the kitchen with Bobby Flay and Giada, i mean basically the show is about her, um assets…

    But they have stopped evolving becuase they found what works at a certain level. I created Farm to Table the Emerging American Meal as a reaction against what I was seeing on Food Network. But my show is NOT a documentary because documentary’s are not FUN. I want to educate through hedonism, as Dan Barber says. Education through entertainment.

  5. I don’t watch much on the Food Network, but I do LOVE Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Although I think that Feasting on Asphalt – where Brown just puts around the South on his motorcycle, eating different regional foods – might be better, or at least more consistently engaging.

  6. I would love a Mario Batali show. I’d heard he was coming back to PBS, or thought I’d heard that. Anyone know?

  7. I have mixed feelings about Good Eats. I love Alton but the show can be so annoying with the “zaniness”.

    I’m a fellow Brian Biotano fan, and also like Barefoot Contessa. I also think Tyler Florence is good when he’s on, but his show is always relegated to ridiculous time slots.

  8. that fat guy with the bleached blond hair screaming about how much he loves butter. Or maybe that’s Paula Deen? Sorry. I get confused.

    Wow, Ezra. The fat guy looks like a woman! Hilarious.

  9. I’m just happy to hear I’m not the only one to like Brian Boitano’s show. His humor is not exactly standard Food Network fare (sorry) and I thought for sure they’d ax his show in a matter of weeks.

  10. I” be alone here in saying that I like Chopped much better than Top Chef… but that’s not to say I particularly like it… I just don’t have any affection for the reality TV aspects of Top Chef. I don’t care what these people are thinking and feeling… I want to see them cook and that’s it, so Iron Chef and Chopped are much better for me.

  11. Thank you, J.W. Hammer. I though I was the only foodie on the planet that can’t stand Top Chef. I mean, I love the food, but I just don’t want to invest that long on a reality show.

    As to FN, the one thing I like about it is that, with the exception of Iron Chef America, they will frequently go ahead and post recipes from their stupid shows. So Robert Irvine will post at least a couple of recipes from whatever his ridiculous show is called, and ditto Flay’s throwdown stuff. I watch food on TV to get ideas. Those shows give me ideas and even remind me what was used, so if I want to riff, I have a solid base.

    FWIW, I’ve tired of Alton some, but his schtick still works for me. Still don’t know what people see in Paula Dean, or Barefoot Contessa for that matter. But for cooking shows, I still find PBS, especially anything with Jacques Pepin the most informative.

  12. Food Network is, alas, living up to Michael Ruhlman’s description of it as “dump-and-stir” programming (which he actually also applies to PBS shows too).

    That said, I TiVo new episodes of Barefoot Contessa, Ace of Cakes, and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. So sue me … I’m entertained by Guy Fieri (tho I don’t watch his cooking show) and like watching him in the kitchen of these great little dives etc. Ditto with Duff and his team.

    Of course, they are the Food Network, not the Cooking Network. I wonder if their biggest problem may have been the Rachel Ray phenomenon. It sometimes seems like they are obsessively driven to try and repeat that kind of revenue-generator. Or else throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

  13. Actually, you can’t really be a foodie and not like Top Chef. It’s really great on a whole host of levels — none of which are present in Chopped. Alston Brown is the only thing worth watching on the Food Network (Good Eats and Iron Chef). Anthony Bourdain is an a priori proof of God, and justifies the Travel Channel in its entirety.

  14. I pretty much gave up on FN three years ago. And after that, they began getting rid of most of their cooking shows and started bringing in a bunch of shows that were about food.

  15. By the way, I do know that it is “Alton” and not “Alston” — although that would a cool name.

  16. I enjoy Ace of Cakes and Throwdown, but not for the cooking tips. Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Unwrapped, and all the other conveyor belt/greasy slop shows are unbearable.

    On PBS, you should definitely check out Avec Eric with Eric Ripert. He speaks so intelligently about food and about cooking as a creative process. It’s really inspiring.

  17. The Food Network is the eighth ring of hell and Guy Fieri the gatekeeper. I once watched him eat a piece of grilled octopus (a specialty at a FL restaurant he visited) with all the trepidation of a 4 year old and realized I could never trust his opinion about food again. But I think my problem with his show over others is that all he does is eat food. And we watch him. No commentary on sights like in Rachel Ray’s travel show, no commentary on culture like Bourdain and Zimmerman, no highlighting quirk and excess like Man vs. Food. This is the formula: Fieri + Eating cheeseburgers + saying “that’s awesome!” = terrible programming. Jesus Christ what have we been reduce to for finding this entertaining.

  18. The problem with food network for the past say… 5 years, has been that there was too much emphasis on “cooks” rather than “chefs.” Starting with Rachel Ray, the network started pandering towards the kitchen novice who aspired to be nothing more than amateur. I feel like half of the programming is sponsored by Kraft.

    I also feel like there is a division between the programming or showing foods that celebrate gluttony such as Paula Dean and Guy whatshisname vs. the “diet” shows (don’t ask me to name them, I steer clear of anything labeled lo-cal). Barefoot Countessa is the only one that I feels serves up good looking fresh food, that is neither a lard performance art piece or stocked full of calorie cutting ingredients. And with the way that the programming is going, I fear like her days will most likely be numbered.

  19. “Actually, you can’t really be a foodie and not like Top Chef. It’s really great on a whole host of levels — none of which are present in Chopped. ”

    You might be right… and this has already been said by Ruhlman and Pollan recently… but shows like Top Chef, No Reservations, and Iron Chef aren’t cooking shows… they’re foodie shows. As entertaining as they may be, they’re absolutely worthless from a “learning to cook” perspective.

    So, since Food Network still has a couple of shows that at least ostensibly try to teach people to cook, I have trouble saying it’s a “wasteland”. I mean, that “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” lady got my mom to obsessed with making a great bolognese sauce… no mean feat, since she hasn’t tried a new recipe in like 20 years… so I’d say its got some value. Obviously YMMV.

    Those shows about how they make jelly beans or whatever need to stop though.

  20. So the Food Network is kind of like the IFA, a wasteland of a “food blog” where Ezra is the only person who sparks remotely interesting conversation every once in a while.

  21. Just a little defense of my love for DDD. I get that Guy Fieri is not Anthony Bourdain. But I really enjoy seeing the places he visits and the foods that are their specialties.

    Like Ron likes being able to dig up the occasional recipe from Throwdown, I like being able to pull up the Google map of DDD when traveling to see if there’s a place I remember from the show to try and visit.

    I wouldn’t try to go to Big Jim in the Run (in Pittsburgh) to try and get haute cuisine, but the next time I head home, I plan to visit to check out some of my Yinzer roots!

    Fieri may well have been lost cooking offal with the Top Chef Masters, but I think there’s a place for him. If he doesn’t piss you off I guess!

  22. Incidentally, the joke wasn’t that Fieri and Deen look similar. It’s that they both just mainline butter into their carotrid arteries.

  23. I thought the Food Network was going to seize the opportunity to add some thoughtful and timely programs when they started advertising for How Did That Get on My Plate? Unfortunately, that show has left me very, VERY disappointed. So much potential to tap into a lively discussion and they fell back on some Unwrapped-inspired production scheme.

    I do love Ina, though.

  24. Could be worse. For a long time, it looked like the major network stockholder was Rachel Ray. Perky church social food.

    You know what? Harold McGee should do a show.

  25. I have to third the Top Chef dislike. Me and my partner have been watching because one of her childhood friends is a contestant, but I am pretty sure that we’re not going to make it any further than the second or the third episode (I forget where we are). Maybe I haven’t watched a reality TV show in too long, but it seems to me that the actual theme is a sort of snide emotional sadism, rather that cooking.

  26. “Their Top Chef knock-off, Chopped, seems like public access television.”

    The progression is closer to:

    The Next Food Network Star –> Top Chef –> Chopped

    As TNFNS predates Top Chef. Top Chef just did the concept much better.

    Chooped is Foodtainment, which is what most of the Food Network has long been. They took Mario and shipped him to Italy, and stuck him with Steve Rooney for comic relief. Ming Tsai wasn’t interesting enough for them so they sent him out on Ming’s Quest. It’s what they do.

    As far as public access, you might have been too young to have caught the original Essence of Emeril (and the rest of the network’s “orginal” programing when it launched), but it was public access all the way. And frankly a lot more watchable than the later version of Essence along with his annoying studio audience show.

    Door-Knock Dinners? Follow That Food? Food 911? The networks has long run out horrid shows, and/or taken decent chefs out of the kictchen, onto the road or into other people’s kitchen.

    It’s what the Food Network is. Ripping them at this point is kind of 2000’ish at this point.

    The best regular food show on the is Bourdain’s No Reservations. In fact, if one happens to catch episodes like the one in Laos, it’s one of the handful of best programs on TV *period*. Over the couse of the series, food and travel often are tools for bigger pictures Tony is painting. Which is in the end what food itself is: part of the bigger pitcher of our lives. Well done, it’s exception. If it’s just to stuff our faces, it can be mindless anything.

    Bourdain = feed the mind and soul

    Food Network = stuff our faces

    Last add:

    Good Eats is quite good. I agree with the poster who gets annoyed with some of the “entertainment” aspects. But I think it’s just a tool to get across educational points that Brown is trying to make. 200+ espisodes in, it remains staggeringly imformative in an otherwise dumbed down network. Brown seems to know how to perfectly play the game almost subversively with the FN Execs oblivious to it, to the point that Brown is probably about as popular in the past two years as he ever was. That’s pretty rare when your core show is something you’ve been kicking out for a decade.

    Last, Last Add: like everyone else, I also want to see Mario back. Hopefully in something like Molto rather than road tripping. Terrific show with Mario cooking and having “friends” to explain things to, ask questions and teach about the food he’s cooking.

    John

  27. I’d like to mention the fact that Anthony Bourdain left Food Network to work for the Travel channel. Food Network shows seem to be sterilized and formal, written for a 50’s housewife.

    I agree with the assessments of Good Eats. Its one of the few shows that explains how to cook and doesn’t just put something into the oven and pull out a finished version. It seems, though, that the only way for a Food Network start to make the show they want is if they make it campy and put it on at 11pm. I just don’t think the Food Network will let anyone have a show where they aren’t smiling the whole time.

  28. Is the percentage of sucky shows on Food Network any greater than on any other network? There are 6 or 8 shows on FN I like to watch. There are not that many on NBC or Spike.

  29. No doubt Good Eats has lots of good information on the science of cooking, but doesn’t it bother anyone else how every episode has to have at least one ridiculous Macgyver-ish gimmick added to the recipe, ostensibly to make a technique foolproof or to do things “the right way” but often just transparently giving Brown a bit of business to talk about and needlessly complicating a straight-forward preparation?

  30. “…but doesn’t it bother anyone else how every episode has to have at least one ridiculous Macgyver-ish gimmick added to the recipe…”

    It’s the same MO as Cook’s Illustrated… that there is always some “trick” or comprimise/ substitution that improves a classic recipe… sometimes its really good and helpful, and sometimes it needlessly complicates things.

    In either case, however, they discuss *why* they’re doing it, so even if you disagree you’re still learning, so it seems worth it to me.

  31. This take is mostly spot-on, but Good Eats with Alton Brown is one of the better shows on TV, period. It has a kind of 3-2-1 Contact level of production values and a severe dad-joke level of humor, but those things combined with AB’s serious knowledge make it great TV, even if not every recipe is very practical.

    Quoted for truth. Brown brings across more intelligence without condescension, more hard information without melodrama, than any other TV host in any genre. He’s a fluid, fluent performer and charming pedagogue. My wife, a biological engineering instructor at MIT, spends the whole show smiling at Brown’s handling of food science. I like the pretty colours.

  32. Shit I guess I just name-dropped like a little goddamn child.

  33. Pingback: Food For Thought – Tuesday, September 22nd « Save Your Fork… There's Pie

  34. pseudonymous in nc

    Alton is probably the only good thing left amid the miasma established by RayRay and Little Bighead.

    Bourdain was right, though, about the Mario/Bittman Spain thing. Done with the No Res crew, it would have been epic. Instead, it was smug and annoying and Gwyneth Paltrow, but I repeat myself. (No Res is the only show I miss after giving up cable.)

    In the meantime, Jamie Oliver’s trip across the US is on British television, starting with a week cooking and eating with ex-gang members in L.A. Good stuff, regardless of what you think of Oliver, and his US network debut dealing with school lunches and cooking skills is going to be interesting.

  35. pseudonymous in nc

    (And our local PBS affil doesn’t take Made In e-Spain, alas.)

  36. Ezra ~ I completely agree on the love for What would Brian Boitano Make. Derby Girls was an instant classic. I’m still trying to figure out my angle to get on his show…

  37. The Food Network saved my sanity after George W. Bush got reelected in 2004. It was the only television I could watch. And I love Paula Deen because she reminds me of everything I like about the south. I can watch her and forget there is any such thing as Saxby Chambliss or Haley Barbour.

  38. I forgot to list the shows I like:
    Good Eats
    Jamie at Home
    I like a lot of the recipes in Secrets of a restaurant chef, although you have to cut the salt by about 90%.
    On reflection, some of the others I like are on NPR.

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  40. I do know that in an interview with Ming Tsai – I forgot which website, he chose to not do the Master Chef on Bravo due to the fact that the judges were the same people judging Top Chef as well the Food Network shows. Either way, this blog had it right on the money with Food Network.

  41. My biggest beef with FN is that they have stopped showing cooking shows in prime time. I want to see people cook and talk about cooking dammit.
    I am of the opinion that Top Chef is a sad pale imitation of what Total Drama Island would do with the Iron Chef concept. It is acceptable to the lobotomized.
    Finally, on Tony Bourdain, the man finally grew up. If you watch the Cook’s Tour and early No Reservations shows he was an insufferable asshole and came to the conclusion with the Iceland episode that his producers were actively trying to poison him to get rid of him. I don’t know if it was the Lebanon experience or having a kid, but he finally seems to realize he is not the most important thing in the universe.

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