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Eat Your Television

January 5, 2010

Over the past 10 years or so, a veritable cornucopia of food-related programming has inundated the television airwaves, almost to the point of insanity.  At first it was just the Food Network, but now cooking competitions and other culinary-themed shows are appearing on other cable stations and even network channels.  How can one sort through the madness and pick out the quality programs?  Good luck.  I’m not here to tell you what to watch – but I will impart my own personal preferences, and feel free to let me know which ones you like…maybe I’m missing out on something.

For me, it all started with “Iron Chef” – not “Iron Chef America,” I mean the original Japanese Iron Chef, which the Food Network began airing many years ago (the shows actually ran from the early 90’s to 2000 in Japan).  If you haven’t had the pleasure, I believe the only place to see it now is on the Finer Living Network (don’t ask, I don’t know why).  It essentially blends a cooking competition with a wacky Japanese game show.  It takes itself just seriously enough to be a real competition, but it also is so overdramatic and silly that it’s incredibly entertaining.  But some amazing food is also created during the production.

Probably the most serious food competition with the highest level of culinary expertise is “Top Chef” on the Bravo channel.  There have been some elements of dumb reality-show interpersonal drama, but the main focus of the show is creating genuinely gourmet and inspired food.  All you have to do is look at the guest judges on each episode to know that this show takes its food seriously.  One episode last season had the contestants prepare a meal for the top French chefs in the world, including Joel Robuchon, who was named the Chef of the Century.  Other guest judges have included Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller, Todd English, etc…basically the best chefs in the world appear on this show, which in my mind makes it the most credible cooking show on television.

In a complete turnaround from “Top Chef,” one of my favorite shows is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network.  This features Guy Fieri, a California restaurateur and chef traveling around the country, checking out local hole-in-the-walls that serve comforting, creative, and (usually) fat-laden dishes.  I enjoy seeing the strange and unexpected recipes being served to regulars by untrained cooks who have a passion for food, or by chefs who once worked in 4-star restaurants but have now taken their skills to the diner.  Plus most of the food just looks so good – unhealthy, filling and bad for you, but damn tasty.

“Hell’s Kitchen” airs on the Fox network, featuring world famous chef Gordon Ramsay and his constant barrage of obscenities, as young chefs try to win their own restaurant.  While the quality of the food is definitely a focus for the show, it seems that Ramsay’s rage and outbursts are what drive the program.  There is also more of a spotlight on the interpersonal drama between contestants, which just reduces the show to a soap opera instead of a serious cooking competition.  I watched the first couple of seasons regularly, but due to the reasons mentioned above, my interest in the show has waned considerably.

By contrast, another Gordon Ramsay program has been one of my favorites – “Kitchen Nightmares.”  There haven’t been any new episodes in a few years, but you can catch reruns on BBC America.  This program features Ramsay visiting restaurants that are failing and about to go out of business in England, Scotland and Wales.  Ramsay identifies the problems and tries to turn things around.  The first thing you’ll notice is Ramsay’s demeanor – he is much more relaxed and amicable than on “Hell’s Kitchen,” and shows he has more of a personality than the profane dictator portrayed on American television.  But the show is very interesting, and you end up rooting for the restaurant to become successful, and hope that the owners take Ramsay’s advice (the most entertaining part of the show is when the restaurateurs scoff at Ramsay’s suggestions, and then he puts them in their place, firmly but not furiously).

“Chopped” is a fairly new show on the Food Network, but it’s quite compelling.  It has an Iron Chef-like quality, in that the contestants don’t know what ingredients they will be working with.  They have to create 3 courses, and prior to each they open a basket of mystery ingredients, and are required to use each in that course.  The focus is on food quality and creativity, and the judges are very critical.  It’s a fun show.

“Throwdown with Bobby Flay” is a fun show as well.  It features renowned chef and restaurant owner Bobby Flay challenging local chefs on their home turf, cooking that chef’s specialty dish.  There has been a cupcake throwdown, a burger throwdown, a fried chicken throwdown, etc.  Flay has actually lost the majority of these contests, but it’s entertaining watching the competition.

A show that I don’t watch religiously but enjoy when I catch it is “Man vs. Food,” which airs on the Travel Channel.  It features Adam Richman, a robust gourmand of sorts traveling to various cities, checking out favorite local eateries.  It is somewhat similar to Fieri’s show, except that the final segment of “Man vs. Food” shows Richman participating in an eating competition.  Every town has a restaurant that boasts the “world’s biggest” something or other, and they have a Wall of Fame of those who have accomplished finishing the seemingly impossible to finish dish.  So Richman takes on these challenges, trying to eat a 5-pound burger, or a 2-foot-tall sandwich, or the spiciest curry on the planet, in a limited amount of time.  It’s fun to watch him sweat it out, trying to finish these mammoth plates of food.  He probably does complete the challenge 90% of the time – he’s a big eater.  I get full just watching the show.

Finally, I enjoy watching the “Next Food Network Star” on, well, the Food Network.  It’s interesting because they’re looking for someone who not only can cook good food, but also has the personality to be on television, and can offer something original for viewers to watch.  Interestingly, the only winner of this competition to actually become a Food Network star is Guy Fieri – not only does he host “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” but he has his own cooking show as well, and appears on various other Food Network shows as a guest.  The other winners on the show – I think there have been 6 or so – either have a show that airs maybe once a day, or have been remanded to the back burner of the television world.

So let me know what your fave food shows are.  TV – it’s good eatin’.

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