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The Influence of TV Cooking Shows

Chef Nigella Lawson as part of the Eating What We Watch article montage.

Photo: JP Masclet

I know exactly where I was when I first realized how big food-on-television was going to get. It was 1997, the weekend just after Thanksgiving, and I was out in the suburbs staying with the parents of my then-girlfriend when, at one point, I found myself trapped alone in the den with her strange uncle. We’d never really gotten along, me and the uncle. He was a gruff, no-nonsense type who ran some sort of crew in, I think, either the construction or waste-management sectors, whereas I…well, I had no crew, and I traffic almost exclusively in nonsense, and I can barely manage my own waste, to be frank about it, let alone whole cities’ worth of other people’s. We were different types of guy, is the bottom line here, and my only desperate plan, as I sank faux-casually onto the faux-leather beside him, was to ask him again to explain hockey’s really quite straightforward “icing” rule to me, for that was the only conversation he and I had ever managed.

He wasn’t watching hockey, though, for once. He was watching The Essence of Emeril.

“I like this guy,” grunted the uncle after a bit. “When he adds, uh, salt or…or spicing to the food, well, he, uh…he says, ‘Bam.’”

I felt myself relaxing, like a sheet of gelatin sliding silently beneath the surface of a bowl of warm water. “Not always,” I said. “Sometimes he says that he’s ‘kicking it up a notch.’”

We were friends after that, the uncle and me. He went on to master Emeril’s shrimp étouffée, making his own shrimp stock and everything. I was happy for him, but hardly surprised, for by that point it was clear that a proper revolution was under way in American cooking, with television leading the charge, and the unlikeliest of people were étouff-ing shrimp all across this great land.

And I was a part of it. Back then, I was under contract to write a difficult postmodern novel, and, as I suspect would also have been James Joyce and Samuel Beckett’s regimen had the Food Network been around back in their day, I would generally rise in time for the midday showing of Molto Mario, take careful notes in the notebook that is the constant companion of every proper writer, then pound the streets of Manhattan all afternoon looking for cardoons and guanciale, so as to have a steaming platter of Italian regional pasta on the table by the time my girlfriend came home from her actual job. My food wasn’t perfect; there were usually rubber bands in it, for one thing, and/or shreds of grated plastic wrap. At the first hint of any more than medium-serious trouble with a dish—spilled detergent, the protein still being alive, etc.—my first instinct was to pump mascarpone at the problem, much as firemen use that flame-retardant foam. But I was getting there. Had you asked me back then, as I was tweezering shards of glass from my polenta, where I saw my cooking in 15 years’ time, I’d have told you that I saw it getting much, much better, just so long as the Food Network remained on the air.

The Food Network has indeed remained on the air. Its content, like a baker’s “starter,” has expanded, spilled over, and been duplicated across our airwaves. Alton Brown, Sandra Lee, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten and more—each occupying his or her own particular culinary niche, and, along with the Top Chef, Martha Stewart, and America’s Test Kitchen franchises, among many others, representing the sprawling apotheosis of the celebrity TV-chef phenomenon. Other parts of the world, you find out quickly when you travel, have their own kitchen messiahs—Sanjeev Kapoor in India, for example, and Karlos Arguiñano in Spain. The rise of the celebrity chef transcends language and geography.

The result, for me personally, has been a long series of small leaps forward in my technical cooking ability. I can chop an onion now in less than 10 minutes. If a recipe calls for two tablespoons of oil, I no longer need to measure it out, but can fling it straight from the bottle, just like Mario, in great, confident, swooping spirals, like a cowboy lassoing a docile steer. I know from hours of Jamie Oliver that salt and herbs and julienned basil must always be sprinkled from a height, and from Gordon Ramsay that the mocking belittlement of one’s subordinate chefs—be they a spouse, an elderly parent, or a tiny, terrified, weeping child—is a vital lubricant in the engine of any well-run kitchen.

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