Many years ago, we actually worked in television.
Not cooking shows, although we spent some time in public television--the haven, prior to the Food Network, of culinary programming. Instead, we ended up working on college football, basketball and other such events.
Now, think about this for a moment. The Food Network reaches some 70 million people, and celebrity chefs such as Emeril "The Bam-bino" Lagasse rake in multimillion-dollar salaries. We find it curious, then, that cooking failed to catch on as a competitive televised sport. Well, aside from the truly bizarre Japanese program Iron Chef, that is. It would be worthwhile to see a bunch of guys huddled at a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon, their eyes glued to a grudge match between Bobby Flay and Sara Moulton. Fans could sling high fives when a favorite chef flipped seared tuna from the pan at the point of perfect caramelization, put money on the outcome of a souffle to "make things interesting" and shout at the TV in support, "C'mon, Sara, julienne that bastard!" Even more fascinating would be the slate of programs on ESPN and other networks. Picture technical innovations like Toque-cam. Bitter disputes between sports reporters Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica over the authenticity of Martin Yan's recipes. Chris Berman's signature nicknames (Wolfgang "What The" Puck). Dr. Jerry Punch down in the pits examining knife wear.
Hell, we watch bass fishing, ice dancing, the X-games and professional basketball. So why not?
In general, Dallas-area chefs spend little time watching their celebrity colleagues, in part because they spend so many hours in their own kitchens and in part because most programs are aimed at the hobbyist. "If it's a professional, I'll watch," says William Koval, executive chef of The French Room, "but if it's not, I'm not interested." Depending on the context, our culture defines cooking as a mundane task, an art, a hobby or a form of entertainment. Programs such as Emeril Live or The Naked Chef turn professionals--artists, if you will--into parodists for the masses. "We're not all in the kitchen saying 'bam,'" Garreth Dickey, executive chef at Jeroboam, points out. "We're generally saying 'What's this?' or 'That's good.' Cooking shows are a byproduct of what we do, but they don't promote a realistic image of the industry."
"If it's a choice between Howard Stern or a chef, I'm watching Howard Stern," Koval says.
Professional kitchens are a frenzy of heat, noise and motion. The execution of several hundred orders in a short period of time depends on knowledge, proper technique and an overarching concern for preparation--what chefs call mise en place. Thus when professional chefs discuss cooking programs, they tend toward those illustrating form rather than glitz. "I watch the Great Chef's series," says Marc Cassel, executive chef at the Green Room, referring to a long-standing program now on the Travel Channel. "It's in real kitchens with real chefs; it's more insightful than others, and it's interesting to see their technique." Chris Svalesen of 36 Degrees and Tom Fleming of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse recommend Jacques Pepin. "He's right on with his technique, the way he uses a knife," Fleming says, "and he creates very honest food."
"He's direct," Svalesen says. "There's no 'bam' or 'shizam' or samurai chefs and all that other crap. He's authentic and true to his profession."
As far as the current stock of television stars, local chefs point to Mario Batali, another Food Network find. "He's very thorough," explains Kent Rathbun of Abacus. "He's got a lot going on when it comes to the history and culture of cuisine. With Mario, you learn."
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Still, few chefs turn down television opportunities. Koval appears regularly on local morning news programs. Rathbun appeared on the Food Network with his brother Kevin, who runs a kitchen in Atlanta. "Just the sheer exposure is huge," Rathbun acknowledges. "It's an ego boost, for sure, and you get to see yourself compared to the others; you get to see your food against the others." They hope to team up for a series on the network if they can work out the details.
The exposure, however, can be daunting. Professional chefs pick up on mistakes and are quick to dismiss someone pandering to the general audience. "I'm not a big fan of celebrity chefs," Dickey says. "They're too over the top." Or, as Koval says of Emeril, "What he does is not what we do; it's for housewives."
So, do chefs watch cooking shows? Yes, but they're quite selective. Few shows address food preparation in a real venue, with all the creativity and calamity of a restaurant kitchen. And few recipes presented on television challenge the professional chef. "I did a foie gras on TV and my wife said, 'Who's going to cook it? Why didn't you do a peach cobbler?'" Koval recalls. He received a single e-mail after creating the seared goose liver, but 700 following a traditional meat loaf.
"If it's not simple," he says, "you'll lose ratings."