We Are What We Watch: The Evolution of Food T.V.
4.18.15 | Issue #15
God damn, Julia Child was fabulous, wasn’t she?
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that, because we are all hard-wired to love her from birth. If you do encounter someone who’s like, “Eh, I don’t really get the fascination there,” congratulations, that’s an alien. Back to Zorg with you, foul intruder.
Much has and will be written about Child forever and ever on into the sunset, so we’ll keep it brief: the success of her PBS show The French Chef was evidence that deep down, most of us were scared shitless of failure in the kitchen. It’s a fear that today's Googling public may not be able to grasp. Don’t know how to break down a chicken? If you were never taught by some wizened countryside grandmother, and all you had was a few cookbooks, you had better hope they were exhaustively detailed. And usually they weren't.
Early food T.V. was educational, sure, but more than that, it was a variety show. In the beginning, we wanted the cooks on our television sets to feel like someone we knew. Someone warm and approachable and funny, show-people who could take the intimidation out of the spartan cookbook and teach us to be fearless behind closed kitchen doors. Hence, Child, and the unflappable Galloping Gourmet, and Emeril with his BAMs and mischievous brows. You can literally feel the sweat prickling on Graham Kerr’s back as his audience howls with laughter when something goes wrong, like it’s a bit. It's hilarious.
Once we picked up the lingo and a passable bank of knowledge, we wanted adrenaline. Competition, high stakes, clocks running out. Padma sending contestants packing, cameras trained on sweaty faces as the mystery ingredient is revealed. High-gloss entertainment for the foodiez. We knew enough to marvel at skills we didn’t possess, understood how difficult the challenges were, but shook our heads confidently when someone fucked up. We’d never plate so sloppily!
Now, recipes demystified and garlic heads peeled in under ten seconds, we want our chefs beyond the looking glass to play both the elusive artist and the swashbuckling adventurer—dauntless in their exploration of new cultures and cuisines, and blissfully at peace while plating. They have to represent the best of not only our kitchens but of ourselves, while ushering our understanding of food to a higher plane.
There’s a spectrum for this, of course. David Gelb’s new Netflix documentary series, Chef’s Table, is poetry in motion. It’s a technique he’s known for after the symphonic sushi dreamscape of Jiro, but here, six individual portraits are presented in binge-watchable format. It’s epic, sprawling beauty—things are swooshed onto plates, waves crash in remote locales—with no sense of irony. There is inner peace to be found in the oft-tortured mind of a chef, it seems to say. The slam poetry to Gelb’s Keats is anything Bourdain does, with his penchant for inserting himself into the far reaches of the known world. Parts Unknown has more teeth than its prior incarnation, No Reservations, and we relish the chance to see Bourdain hack his way into the brush, a modern explorer of the Amazon, intent on mapping the food landscape. Mind of a Chef, on the other hand, is the thinking chef’s catnip, quirky and geeky and spliced with science segments.
For a new show on The Travel Channel, food isn't even the star. Conflict is.
The first night of shooting on Breaking Borders, which sends a journalist and a chef into conflict zones around the world with the aim of sitting both sides down to “break bread,” co-host Michael Voltaggio lays in his hotel room bed with the windows wide open. It’s hot in Jerusalem, and there’s no air conditioning. Somewhere, a muezzin begins his pre-dawn call to prayer, the sounds ricocheting off of the silent city walls, and all he can think is how surreal it is to actually be here, after all the lead-up, with strangers for travel companions. He said yes to this idea almost the minute he heard it, a diamond in the rough tumble of homogenous pitches he hears in the aftermath of his time on Top Chef. There’s a quote about not learning until you leave your own kitchen that runs through his head, and he knows from experience that getting outside his kitchen in Los Angeles, ink, will make him better as a chef and as a person.
But he is alone in this moment, and nervous.
By the last night of shooting, he is much less marooned by his own thoughts. The crew is in Cambodia, tight-knit after a grueling two week on-two week off schedule that has crisscrossed the globe, and his journalist counterpart, Mariana van Zeller, has stuck a live snake in his pillowcase for good measure. They’re a roving caravan family by this point, and Voltaggio is in his element.
“In the first couple of episodes, I was pretty hesitant because I didn’t want to sound stupid or insensitive. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” he says. “As the shoot progressed, I felt more comfortable, and almost more compelled to engage in the conversation, because I didn’t ever want to walk away from this once-in-a-lifetime situation and think, I wish I had said that.”
Now that he’s been back in L.A. for a little while, that familiar itch of wanderlust is becoming distracting.
“To be honest, I’m anxious to get back out on the road. I miss the unknown, the exploring, and the education,” he admits. “We get so caught up in our own lives everyday, and to get outside of that inspires you and energizes you to be more present when you come back.”
The initial concept of the show seems a little hokey, a little too Kumbaya to pull off. Voltaggio seems just as surprised to admit that it’s not bullshit. It works. The structure of the show is pretty straight-forward: explanation of the conflict (“When you read that in Kashmir there’s 700,000 troops occupying that country from another place...you can read that, but when you get there and you see armed military everywhere? You can’t really prepare yourself for that”), individual interviews of each dinner guest, B-roll, market trips, synthesis, all capped off with the big event.
“We bring them together for the first time at the dinner. So I’m in the kitchen, and Mariana’s at the table, and they’re all sitting there and it’s very awkward. They’re not really talking to each other, they’re on their phones, wondering what they’re doing there, and then the food comes out,” he explains. “All of a sudden, there’s a reason for them to start having a conversation. It’s an icebreaker, and then they see the things that maybe I completely messed up, but it didn’t matter because hopefully it still tasted good, and all of a sudden they had a common thing that they could talk about. The power of that, seeing that actually work, was pretty genius.
“Food has become the conduit,” he adds. “Before, the competition food shows were a conduit for people to food itself. Now we’re using food to tell a bigger story. In our case, we’re telling stories about war and conflict and how people are affected by it. Food is just what we’re setting the table with.”
There were no rules or guidelines for Voltaggio with each new table, no ingredients he had to include. Just the dietary needs of his guests, a standard order for any chef in the no-gluten no-dairy no-raw age we live in.
“It was, ‘Here’s the property you’ll be cooking at. Write a list of what you’re gonna make, write a list of what you need to buy, go buy it yourself,’” he explains. “It’s not like I was told to cook the cuisine of these parts of the world, but I felt compelled to cook with what I was exposed to. I’m not traveling with immersion circulators and liquid nitrogen and an army of cooks. It’s myself and limited resources, a language barrier, and unfamiliar terrain. I had to get back to my instincts, and just apply what I learned the first three or four days on the ground.”
After the dinners, he would wash dishes. “I felt bad about leaving a mess in somebody’s house,” he says. “If that could be the future of food tv, that would be amazing, but eventually, chefs are going to run out of energy. This shoot was hard work, and the only reason I could do it was because our jobs are already hard work.”
So in this new frontier of food television, we seem to be searching for something larger than entertainment, though danger and animated ramen are always a plus. We want to see evidence of a philosophical truth, that food—the preparation and the sharing of it—can heal physical or psychological wounds that time alone can’t. Normally, Voltaggio says, when people would ask about Top Chef, the questions all concerned his personal experience. What was it like when you cooked that, or when this person said that to you? Now, he says, sounding a little elated, no one talks to him about the chance he got to ride a camel on the show. All they talk about is the issues presented at the final dinner. The issues, not the food. This is how he measures the success of the show.
“One of the biggest compliments I get, and it’s happened a few times, is [one of the guests] saying that this could be a good start. If this American chef can understand this small part of our culture in three or four days and repackage it and present it back to us the way that you did, then maybe we could try to understand each other a little bit better,” he says. “Just to hear that type of thing be said to me just for cooking a meal...it’s the biggest compliment I could ever receive in my professional and personal life, and it never gets old. To hear somebody say that something I did with my hands would inspire them to want to communicate with each other, or just to do it differently, I can’t top that. I have the best job in the world right now.”
That being said, even he has a familiar soft spot.
“But you know what I miss, honestly? I miss Emeril, I miss Julia Child,” he admits. “I miss the stand-and-stir cooking instruction, in studios where there was energy and a live audience and food being cooked for people. I miss that. Bring Emeril back.”