Tuesday, June 12, 2012

An Open Letter To The Food Network

It should be readily apparent by reading this blog that I dig food. I’m fascinated by the history of, and socioeconomic influences on legacy cuisine and I love learning about where food comes from and how to turn something mundane into something spectacular.

As I’ve aged, I’ve developed an intense intellectual curiosity about food and cooking. Along with that has come an increase in the sophistication of my palate and my desire to experience cooking styles and ingredients that I was never exposed to as a middle-class, white, suburban, California kid.

Luckily, my darling wife shares this passion. She’s a fantastic cook and I’ve learned a ton from her. Thankfully, we’ve had the opportunity to travel together quite a bit and have used those trips to expose ourselves to incredible new culinary experiences and brought home much of what we learned.

But there is so much more out there. So much knowledge, so many ingredients, so many preparations…..one could, if one could afford to do so, spend a lifetime traveling the world and only experience a fraction of it. This is why I was so excited when “The Food Network” was born. Initially it was highly instructive, the on-air personalities had unassailable credibility and there was the opportunity, though unfulfilled to really impact how people view food, how they cook and how they eat. But I think they’ve blown it.

An article hit the web the other day on FoodRepublic.com ( Here )   wherein Chris Cosentino, ( Chef / Co-Owner of Incanto in San Francisco…and one of my favorite chefs) bemoans, and rightly so, what he thinks is wrong with “Food Television.” …and I couldn’t agree more.

When “Food Network” went into wide cable distribution it featured actual cooking shows where actual chefs taught how to cook actual food. They had the rights to the Julia Child library and it prominently featured Mario Batali, Emeril Lagase, Bobby Flay, David Rosengarten later adding Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”, each of them credible, knowledgeable, entertaining and engaging. Then the network lost its way....

Tune in at any given time of day now and you are likely to find a cupcake competition, a cake competition, a BBQ competition, a competition to become the host of a competition, a game show between wanna-be chefs sweating in their food or any number of identically formatted show where Host “X” travels around and eats too much in lots of wacky places. It’s become fast-food-food-TV. All fluff & flash and no substance. It’s brightly colored, sickeningly sweet and filled with empty calories….it's the broadcasting equivalent of cotton candy.

Cosentino makes some great points in the aforementioned article relative to this;

"Everybody is stuck on the fucking Styrofoam container. Food comes from some place. The more we understand where our food comes from, the less food problems we will have".

"Right now, we do have issues with factory farming that need to be repaired and I’m pretty adamant about that. I know where all my meat comes from. But you make those choices with your dollars. You don’t make those choices by forceful hand. Make that change by how you spend your dollars."

Regarding McDonalds: "It’s $3.99 for a fruit smoothie, so obviously they are buying fruit. But how is a hamburger 99 cents?"

And in response to a question about how we change the way people think about food;
"Education. You have to train and teach. You have to make people feel comfortable about cooking at home and that has been taken away."

We have multiple generations of people who are completely detached from the source of their food. Folks have no concept of the connection between a hunk of meat and a once living thing or if they do, they choose to block it out. How many people do you know who will willingly eat sushi or Nut Crusted Mahi but will practically gag if you place a cooked whole fish in front of them? Hell, I know people who despite being avowed carnivores can’t deal with meat that remains on the bone. So detached from the source have they become that any reminder of it makes them all squeamish. God forbid they actually view or take part in the process that transforms a once living thing into an 8oz Ribeye or cut-up whole fryer.

Is it any wonder people don’t seem willing to address their personal intake of the byproduct of factory farming and the non-food fillers infecting food from places like McDonalds, yet they are overwhelmingly supportive of legislative over-reach with little to no knowledge of the actual issue or consequences of a law as long as it’s marketed as “for the children” or “for animal rights”.

Food Network touts shows where some bubble-headed moron stirs condiments and processed garbage together in the name of the 30min (Rachel Ray) or $10 (Melissa d’Arabian) meal, or another where a charming middle-aged Southern gal gives herself and her audience Type II Diabetes or still another show where someone eats the caloric equivalent of the 49ers Offensive Line in the name of "entertainment". Meanwhile….One in three American children are overweight or obese 

The Food Network has, like most broadcast entities, focused on the lowest common denominator and in doing so have done a tremendous disservice to their audience. They have a fantastic opportunity to educate people, effect real change in how Americans think about food, how we cook and eat and to connect people to their food and each other by teaching about where it comes from both physically and culturally. They know the template. It can be a successful business model. It isn’t easy, but as Julia Child taught us over the course of her decade’s long show, few things worth doing, viewing  or eating are. 




  1. A couple of observations. First, I agree 100% that Food Network is not what it was, and I much prefer the old format.

    BUT the Food Network is not the Cooking Network. there's nothing that says they have to stick to a "chef teaches the unwashed masses how to make Coq au Vin" format. While entertaining, I'd find a network like that fairly dull and one-dimensional.

    Secondly, Food Network is NOT in business to educate (just like the 6:00 News is not in business to report the news.) Both are in business to make money. If Food Network's ratings are higher (and it appears to be,) then more power to them. As a business venture, they are doing the right thing.

    You an I are on the fringe. We're expecting graduate-level cooking shows from a network that's figured out that the money is in junior-high spectacle instead.

    Sadly, I doubt that's going to change. entertainment has ALWAYS catered to the masses and intelligent people have never represented a significant fraction of the masses.

    1. You make an excellent point Robert and I recognize that programming is directly tied to demographics and in turn to advertizing. That is what drives decisions. I'm struck though with the unavoidable recognition of the existence of "No Reservations". A show that manages to combine food, culture politics, economics and racial issues while educating, entertaining, enlightening, getting great ratings and drawing lucrative advertising. So much so that Bourdain and the shows producer have run from the nitwit that runs food network twice lest she turn it into Dinner Dipshits & Douchebags.

      The aforementioned certainly represents an anomaly in broadcasting in that it manages to be all those things AND worthy of watching. It would be difficult, if not impossible to duplicate…and the folks that run Food Network have made it clear that not only do they not wish to do so, they wish it to go away. They could however, without much effort, elevate their programming enough that it isn’t insulting, educates their audience while entertaining and provide a compelling advertising platform. They likely will not do so. Unilever & McDonalds have big enough advertising budgets to ensure that their garbage keeps getting marketed to the Type II Diabetic community.