Television critic Emily Nussbaum starts with the instructional “stand-and-stir” technique popularized by Julia Child on The French Chef and is surprised to find few choice eats inside the overgrown thicket of late-modern cooking shows, most of which involve competition. The DVR buffet includes the “gleeful dystopia” of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, the efficient and “strict as a sonnet” Chopped, Alton Brown’s perpetually rerunning Good Eats, and the Barefoot Contessa with its “luxurious Naria” setting, which is better known as East Hampton. “I cannot advise you on whose cooking tips are the most reliable,” she writes, “but then these shows are often more about the fantasy of one’s perfect life.”
The New Yorker writer doesn’t quite fall for Ramsay’s spurious antics and Brown’s “shop-class” shoptalk, and Nussbaum questions the educational possibilities that might be found on Ted Allen’s show. What’s more, she writes, food TV has diverged into two incompatible paths, the Iron Chef–like shows versus the hapless cook stuck with a whisk at home.
Like much of TV drama, they glamorize workaholism, and on the better shows the gimmickry is half the appeal: if you can survive this obstacle course, no regular kitchen can defeat you. In contrast, the modern stand-and-stir is more about the dream of an idyllic home kitchen, with everything in its place and nothing burning. As a result, these shows tend to be as static as network news: there’s a kitchen, there’s a person, there are ingredients pre-prepped in bowls, and, often, a significant amount of purring while things sizzle.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, writes Nussbaum, and she even comes away from it all identifying with Ina Garten, who she calls her “soul mate.” Reading about the telegenic screamer chefs, high-stakes challenges, and fanciful fronds, however, made us wish that some cook or chef would just come along and open up something new for a change.
To Stir, With Love [New Yorker]