Category Television

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”.

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Revisiting the Dungeons and Dragons Animated Series at 30

This week, the Dungeons & Dragons animated series turns 30 years old. Thirty years since the kids first set off on that magical roller coaster ride that brought them to “The Dungeon Master”. To say that this show wasn’t exactly beholden to the world of D&D is an understatement, but rather it used the game like you would a spice, sprinkled throughout the show to provide flavor to the fantasy setting.

It also can’t be understated how 80s this show is – something which anyone will notice upon popping in the first episode. For those of you who aren’t familiar – here’s some quick highlights:

  • A group of kids at an amusement park go on a roller coaster that takes them into “The Realm of Dungeons and Dragons” where they meet “The Dungeon Master”.
  • The kids are each given a weapon (and thus a class) to defend themselves and work to find their way home, while also performing side quests along the way to help people. Come to think of it, the overall plot is like a less techy Digimon.
  • Throughout the series the party battles Venger (an evil wizard) and Tiamat a five headed dragon.

If you aren’t sold yet on the show you should know that Peter Cullen and Frank Welker provide the voices for Venger and Tiamat respectively. That’s right – Optimus Prime and Megatron are involved.

To celebrate this magnificent and ridiculous show; I’m going to do a re-watch of the entire series, with recaps and commentary. Crazy right? But I might as well do something productive with all this free time I have.

The recaps won’t start till next week, so if you’d like to be involved – you have time to grab the DVD set and follow along. The show is available on DVD on Amazon at a ridiculously cheap price, which seems to be your only option. So grab a copy, and get ready – because next week we’re hitching a ride into the realm of D&D, with all the awesome 80s synth music we can handle.

This is either going to be awesome…or terrible.

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Messing with BBQ: The Evolution of BBQ Pitmasters

There are many ways to make BBQ and even more opinions on sauces and side dishes. Yet, regardless of geographic allegiance the one key to making good barbecue that everyone agrees on is “don’t mess with it.” Dress the meat however you want, put it on the smoker and then leave it alone.

That mantra hasn’t been part of the production of BBQ Pitmasters – a show that began on TLC in late 2009. Now in it’s 4th season, the show has undergone significant changes each year. What started as a reality show following some of America’s best BBQ chefs to competitions around the country has morphed into a more familiar competitive cooking show in the vein of Chopped. While constant changes and tinkering with the format might signal a show that has lost its way, BBQ Pitmasters has emerged from its growing pains with quite possibly the best format in competition cooking. So how did this happen?

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Food Court Wars Recap: Detroit Crunch City

Life intervened and prevented my recapping of last week’s episode of Food Court Wars, but this week we’re back on track so let’s get right to it. We’re in Midland Michigan at the Midland Mall.

Our main man, Tyler Florence , who has been in the restaurant business for a quarter century (that sounds much more impressive than 25 years) remains dapper looking in the middle of the mall. Quick fashion note, his pocket square doesn’t match the rest of his outfit, but let’s just move onto the teams.

Chip N’ Wich – run by Jonathan and Craig, both from downtown Detroit. Friends for six years, they developed a gourmet sandwich shop that puts their own potato chips right on the sandwich, giving them “the sandwich with the crunch.” They both have jobs in kitchens in Detroit, but are looking for other ways to support their families.

Oasis – Diana and Melania serve international food at the World Cafe, which specialties in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. They already have a restaurant, but the food court kiosk would be called “Oasis” and would be the “quick service” version of their main restaurant. Melania formerly worked in retail, and after moving home to be with family she reinvented herself as a chef relying on culinary experience that came from working in restaurants as a teen.

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Food Court Wars Recap: Slanging Tacos and Island Flavors

After a charming, but relatively unremarkable premiere episode Food Court wars continues – in a new time slot. The show now airs before Food Network Star rather than after it. Also, just a quick note. The episode guide calls this “Season 1, Episode 3” because of the original pilot airing back in 2012, but that is nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, this is episode two.

Tyler Florence continues on his journey to host every type of alternative cooking show imaginable. At this rate, next year he’ll be hosting “Lemonade Stand Wars” by next summer. But this week, we’re in Spartanburg, SC at the West Gate Mall. We waste no time getting to the teams.

Tirado’s Empanandas, run by the mother daughter team of Jen and Trisch. As they explain, an empanada is “a stuffed savory meat pie.” It is “tasteful, but not spicy.” They already run a food cart, and while Jen was on her way to becoming a manager at a bakery, the family always wanted to have a family business, so she quit her job to pursue the dream. As she notes, because you can’t cook on the cart itself, they’ll never have a profit business.

Taco Spot, with owner JB and manager Michael is a “whole new brand of tacos” given the Southern twist that gets put into each taco. JB started the business over 4 years ago with his then friend Lindsay, who is now his wife – yay taco love. Taco Spot actually has two locations, a small 16 seat restaurant and a smaller delivery/pick-up only locale. JB really wants to win to provide extra financial security for his wife, and provide Michael with the chance to be a “business owner”.

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Food Court Wars Recap: Scars Before Stars

“Owning a food court restaurant could make you a multi-millionaire”. With that surprising statement, Food Network’s latest challenge competition show, Food Court Wars is off and running. Hosted by Tyler Florence, formerly of The Great Food Truck Race, each week two teams of “aspiring food court entrepreneurs” compete against one another with the winner earning a food court restaurant rent free for one year.Like the Great Food Truck Race, the two teams compete in both concept and marketing plan to make the most money over a single day.

It should be noted that this isn’t actually the first episode, despite the “series premiere” label. A pilot episode aired in August 2012, with the winning team – Kettle N’ Sprouts – earning a rent free spot for the whole year. However, as of late February 2013, the storefront had mysteriously closed.

The show moves around the country, and for this premiere episode we’re at the Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian Mississippi.

We’re introduced to the two teams, who both have a lot riding on the chance to launch their own food court restaurant. Po’ Boy Station is run by Erica and Stevo, two best friends (from the age of 3) looking to serve authentic New Orleans inspired sandwiches. Erica formerly spent time in New Orleans, but lost everything and was forced to move home to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

The other team, Suck the Shuck, is run by Thomas and Mary Jordan, former restaurant owners in Chicago in the 1980s who now serve Tamales and wings out of a gas station, in exchange for cleaning the bathrooms. They’ve been working on their tamale recipe for 45 years and are still holding onto the dream of getting another shot at running a restaurant.

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Great American Food Truck Race III Recap: Humble Beginnings

A new season of the Great American Food Truck Race kicks off, and Tyler Florence is back on the case, Top Gun shades and all. One of our favorite cooking contest shows returns, but in year three they’re switching up the formula.  This year, all the contestants are newbies. None of them own food trucks, or have ever operated, cooked-in or even driven one. (Don’t you need a commercial license to drive these? What are the chances these teams all passed the commercial test on the first try…5%?)

The prize this year is not only a chunk of change ($50k), but also the food truck of their dreams. I’m really hoping Xzibit shows up and we get a “Pimp My Ride” episode in the finale, complete with a trip to West Coast Customs.

For those new to the show, here’s how it works. Each week the teams compete in a new city, serving food to the locals. Aside from planning menus and cooking food, the teams have to scout locations and try to drum up customers however they can. Along the way there are side challenges. In the end, the lowest earning team goes home.

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Chopped’s Sweet Problem

In the whirling dervish of cooking competition shows that Food Network has morphed into, Chopped stands out amongst the best. Essentially a condensed version of Iron Chef, the show has four chefs making up to three courses (appetizer, main course, dessert) using a list of mandatory ingredients which are revealed at the start of each round. To keep things interesting, the combination of ingredients are often times strange and usually include one “what the hell?” addition.

After each course the dishes are judged by a rotating panel of three chefs ranging in degrees of celebrity – if Scott Conant isn’t on the panel I change the channel half the time – and one chef is eliminated. Eventually, the final two cheftestants take part in a one-on-one dessert showdown to decide a winner. It is here where the show falls apart.

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Checking in with Chef Mike Isabella

With a new season of Top Chef well underway it is easy to lose yourself in a roster of new cheftestants. With so many former winners and finalists opening restaurants, we decided to check in on one of the most memorable contestants the show has ever seen, Chef Mike Isabella. Isabella is remembered not just for his big smile and personality, but because he had one of the best runs in show history when he emerged as a dark horse during the All-Stars season and narrowly lost to favorite Richard Blaze in the finals.

CnC: What was the most difficult challenge during your time on Top Chef? Recently, we talked to Isabella about his new restaurant venture, the hardest part about being on Top Chef and his guilty pleasure foods.

Chef Isabella: The challenge at Target on the Top Chef All-Stars season because we had to run around and buy equipment and then assemble it before we even start cooking.

CnC: Where did the decision to call the restaurant Graffiato, which means scratchy or ragged in Italian, come from?

Chef Isabella: Graffiato means scratched or etched and it came from Roman soldiers using their swords to carve into stone. It was an original form of art, and expression. Graffiato is my expression of childhood flavors.

CnC: Do you have a favorite dish or something on the menu you would call Graffiato’s signature?

Chef Isabella: Hand cut spaghetti with olive oil poached cherry tomatoes and basil

CnC: What are your guilty pleasure foods? What sort of dishes do you like to make for yourself when you are alone?

Chef Isabella: I eat a lot of pasta and my favorite junk food is Reese’s peanut butter cups.

CnC: Is there anything that you love to eat, but don’t know how to make or refuse to make and prefer to get elsewhere?

Chef Isabella: Graffiato is located in Chinatown so I go to New Big Wong for Salt & Pepper Shrimp.

Back when Top Chef 8 began, we wrote that Isabella didn’t have “it” and would merely be one of the chefs that would hang around for a while before being dispatched in favor of the more accomplished and better chefs. That sentiment was probably written more than once about Isabella, and boy were we all very wrong. You won’t catch us underestimating Chef Isabella or his restaurant Graffiato anytime soon, and neither should anyone else.

(photo from

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The Great Food Truck Race 2 Recap: The Finale

Last night marked the finale of the Great Food Truck Race 2 and maybe it was the state of exhaustion I was in having helped prep a few dozen cupcakes, or maybe the grilling of veggies and steak for lunch this week, but for a finale it didn’t seem that exciting. The combination of over the top editing made the whole thing feel artificially neck and neck.

Hodge Podge and The Lime Truck faced off on the streets ofMiamiand the real challenge was simple: first truck to earn $15,000 would win the grand prize of $100,000. Plus more than a few speed bumps along the way to mix up the game a bit.

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