Chefs NOT Wanted: the New Food Network Paradigm

Food Network doesn’t really care if you can cook. I don’t mean to be overly cynical, but that shouldn’t come as any great revelation. This has been the case for some time, but the network doesn’t seem to be hiding it as much anymore. The network which used to almost expertly balance its talent between personality and ability seems to have tipped the scales in favor of the former, with little regard for the latter.

I should begin by saying that yes, I recognize that there is a Cooking Channel, and that the balance of programming has shifted to make Food Network more about food and entertainment. Both are owned by the Scripps Network and it is certainly a smart programming move, similar to the TBS/TNT split between comedy and drama. I get it, but here’s the problem. TBS and TNT are in roughly 85% of homes, and Food Network is available in 87%. The Cooking Channel is available in just over 53%. Kind of hard to create a brand split if most people aren’t able to watch regardless of the programming plans. (If you’re curious about the stats, check out this article from late Aug 2013)

Until the Cooking Channel becomes more available one would think that the Food Network would at least try and keep things balanced, but no. The imbalance has cropped up in several places though many will probably – and rightly – point to the ubiquitous Next Food Network Star as exhibit A. The use of “star” in the title suggests that the show is more concerned with cultivating pure celebrity than it is establishing the next great tv chef. But this isn’t a lesson in language intentionality so we’ll let that go. The more damning evidence comes in how that show has evolved over the years with the ways it measures and tests “talent”.

Early seasons of the show kept the format simple and focused on putting contestants in situations that simulated having your own Food Network show. My personal favorite was a gauntlet style challenge where all the chefs worked to make the same dish, tagging out after about a minute in front of the camera with each contestant picking up where the previous one left off. It was a little crazy, but gave good insight into who could cook and most especially which contestants could handle talking to an audience and keeping a dish on track at the same time.

In the latest season of the show, whole episodes involved selling your brand, crafting a product to pitch to executives “Shark Tank” style, and even auctioning yourself and your dish to a room full of people. The preponderance of episodes were focused on developing a character and personality, with cooking skills being secondary. Though, that last challenge was meant to test the chefs ability to describe food and really sell people on it, which is certainly an important trait for a tv chef hamstrung by viewers’ inability to use their most important senses (smell and taste) to judge a dish (and no, that isn’t an outcry for smell-o-vision).

The show does have challenges that expose and highlight cooking ability, but they get buried behind the absolute need to have character and celebrity trump all. The producers don’t seem as interested in finding someone with adequate culinary skills/knowledge, but rather someone who can sell a character and create a brand for all those wonderful network synergies.

We should also point out that in nine seasons the only true “Star” that the show has created is Guy Fieri, the jewelry laden, manic mayor of “flavor town” who is probably the most recognizable personality on the network outside of the “Big 3” of Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown (honorable mention goes to Michael Symon).

Fieri has the big personality and look that we might point to as being “part of the problem”, but his character aside, Fieri can cook and does have the pedigree. Anyone who watches even a single episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives can see that Fieri has a wealth of culinary knowledge, and his whirling dervish of a personality is pitch perfect opposite the restaurant owners and chefs who might not be comfortable carrying a tv segment.

It is possible that it’s all an act and the show just does an excellent job of prepping Fieri with information on different cuisines, cooking styles and ingredients. Even if that is the case, he sells it like organic knowledge, and so I’ll give him plenty of points even if he’s faking it – though I tend to think it’s genuine.

Outside of Fieri, can you name another winner who has gone on to do anything of note? Probably not, and that’s because most of the actual cooking shows that these contestants “win” take place at off times of the programming calendar. Other Network Star winners like Aarti Sequeira, Aaron McCargo, Jr., and “sandwich king” Jeff Mauro are confined to weekend morning shows, even years after being crowned winner. Having a food show on early Sunday morning is like having a major network show on Friday night. Yeah, you’re on TV, but there aren’t many people watching. The regular day time and prime time lineup involve re-runs or competition shows.

So maybe the problem isn’t that these new “stars” can’t cook, maybe the problem is that the network doesn’t really care and just hasn’t deemed them as celebrity enough to be ready for prime time. The problem is, what happens if they never are? Where does the network go from here? The Cooking Channel launched in 2010 and in the three years since hasn’t made a whole lot of traction, nor launched stars of its own. If the network abandons the cooking part of the food experience altogether what exactly separates it from TLC, the Travel Channel or even Bravo in terms of its food programming? The answer…nothing.

If the problem were confined merely to Next Food Network Star it wouldn’t really be that much of an issue. We still have bastions of cooking and skilled centered programming on the network – with Chopped and Iron Chef America leading that charge, but with each new show they get pushed further and further to the margins. Case in point, Cutthroat Kitchen, think Chopped but trade out the testy judges for an auction style program where booby traps and sabotage are sold to the highest bidder, and where possible robot/clone Ted Allen has been replaced by Alton Brown whose increasing slim figure and growing beard have him looking more and more like a Bond villain everyday.

The setup is comfortable enough for network veterans. Four chefs compete in three rounds, making a dish of Brown’s choosing. Chefs are given 60 seconds each round to “shop” for ingredients in a pantry, and must claim all of their food then. But that’s where the twists begin. The contestants are then given $25,000 each, which will be spent in auctions throughout the show for better ingredients/tool, or for items that they give to their opponents to make life more difficult. These include being able to trade out fresh ingredients for processed or overcooked foods or swapping out their professional tools for pockets knives and camp stoves.

The show is genius in this respect, it encourages and entices the contestants to limit the prize money and thus reduce Food Network’s payout. And considering how wacky and damaging the auction items become, it’d be incredibly difficult for a chef to get through all three rounds and win without spending a significant amount of their cash.

But, what if they didn’t spend the money? What would happen if all 4 chefs made an agreement at the start of the episode to not spend a single dollar and get a shot at walking away with $25,000, a massive prize, bigger than on Chopped or Food Network Challenge.

How would Alton – and the show’s producers – react to a situation where contestants refused to bid and spend money? I’m not entirely sure and it doesn’t seem feasible given the personalities and hyper-competitiveness of the contestants, but I’ll probably keep watching and holding out a tiny hope that this happens one week. It certainly would be more compelling than watching chefs trade sarcastic barbs and trade powdered milk and burnt toast.

That kind of format destroying swerve would be on par with the Iron Chef episode when John Fraser and Michael Symon both competed without sous chefs for a frantic 60 minutes. It remains one of the most compelling episodes of programming that Food Network has ever aired and represented a level of unpredictability that the network is lacking.

Cutthroat Kitchen could provide that unpredictability and if it were merely a single show in an otherwise strong and balanced programming schedule it would be fantastic. Instead, it’s just another noise in the crowd of competition cooking, where we’re supposed to care more about the first C than the second one.

Anyone tuning into the network to get a technique tip or find inspiration for a dish is going to be hard pressed to figure out how crafting a cooking vessel out of tinfoil is relevant beyond a camping trip. That’ll lead them to grabbing the remote looking for another outlet. But, chances are barely 50/50 that they’ll have somewhere else to turn and maybe that’s Scripps’ biggest problem of all.