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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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07.17.08

One Harley Davidson, Finely Chopped

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Anne Burrell made her debut on the Food Network recently. It was quite a performance. The only thing I can think of that was close was seeing Joe Cocker many years ago with his Mad Dogs & Englishmen at the Fillmore East (re-issued as a CD, it holds up pretty well today). Mr. Cocker, for those too young to remember, was famous for his British workingman’s gritty voice and his bizarre body language.

Ms. Burrell has a reputation as a well-credentialed, knowledgeable, and skilled chef. I saw her for the first time when she was part of Mario Batali’s Iron Chef America bout with Andrew Carmellini, one of the best and exciting food shows I’ve seen on TV. She appeared as an imposing, fast, & fearless Batali team member. All business. Sure, there was friendly banter, what with the kitchen stadium motif and control booth and on-site commentary from Messrs Brown and Brauch.

Fast forward to the first episode of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. By now, the highlights are well known around the food criticism cognoscenti……seemingly uncontrolled/involuntary gyrating movements, a biker’s old lady’s vernacular, and an effusive demeanor that made the entire half hour pretty unsettling. Perhaps I’m too old to get it. Perhaps “your veg” and “crud” are insider terms common to a newer breed of restaurants. That’s fine. On the Food Network they sound as though the producers feel a need to either dumb down the script or let us in on the culinary hipness of this generation’s cadre of high profile chefs. Both likely apply.

It’s a shame that food TV production folks positioned Ms. Burrell as another personality designed to lead viewers down the informal path to cooking. Perhaps one of the saddest ironies here is that the recipes she cooked on camera were terrific. She most surely has a passionate, sophisticated sense of food. Her restaurant’s menu certainly reinforces her feelings and talent. Why subject someone with this background and skill to a strained on-camera persona? If this is intended to make her audience more comfortable with her cooking, the Food Network high command ought to re-visit its celebrity arsenal. It will find that it’s well supplied with all the big guns and trench warriors it needs to bring food to the hinterlands.

We’re living in a time in which just about everything but the esoteric rites of the Freemasons is accessible via TV, the Web, and commercial advertising. Small problem….we’re mistaking democratization for a weird type of populist entertainment, which sends the message that fine, skillful, creative, and satisfying cooking should remain the property of the intelligentsia, the professional culinary community, and the more refined eaters among us.

By oversimplifying things, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re reaching and enriching a wider audience. Emeril Lagasse, a chef with terrific credentials, started the trend after his relatively stiff on-camera style attracted so –so viewership. Reinvented with a slack jawed New Orleans patois and an almost disdainful approach to cooking technique, he succeeded in pumping up the seemingly repressed audience……. a familiar audience at that…… a variation on that segment of the Bourbon Street crowd who come to New Orleans to do things they can’t get away with back in Chattanooga or Terre Haute. The TV revelers greet huge amounts of spice & garlic with cheers, applause, and “ahs. The audience’s lowered inhibitions combined with the band and the “bam(s)”…produces a variety show that just happens to have a little cooking.

I find Rachael Ray’s shtick grating too, but that’s of little consequence considering the adoration of a massive younger audience and the satisfied smiles of her accountants, and the Food Network brass. She’s a character, a brand, and judging from the number of titles crowding out the competition on the cookbook shelves of every Barnes & Noble and Borders, the faithful queue up for her latest tome every time. Many, with no clue about chemistry, consider “EVOO” right up there on the periodic table with all the other lesser elements.

It seems that many chef personalities have been turned out and banished by the Food Network for not being perky, funny, or willing to over-simplify their approach to food. The reality appears, however, that like its populist super stars, the Food Network is a powerful brand. It works for a limited variety of food personalities. Others must take their talents elsewhere. There are certainly entertaining programs that need not shoot for the lowest common denominator. Alton Brown’s highly creative antics draw from his film/video background. “Good Eats” seldom disappoints its dedicated viewers. Brown’s campy take as “Iron Chef America” commentator is a wonderful riff on television sports broadcasting. Surely, Ms. Burrell can convey her food expertise on camera without suggesting that the previous evening was laced with way too much Bud Light.

This is Barry Strum’s first piece for Hungry. A graying baby boomer involved in economic development, Strum lives with his wife in Cincinnati, where they share an enthusiasm for cooking, eating, and food culture. Daughter Alex and husband Aamir Burki live in Chicago.

One Comment on "One Harley Davidson, Finely Chopped"

b*schus

Welcome to Hungry. Nice piece, have you watched the Next Food Network Star at all? It’s the most transparent representation of what the network looks for in its talent. Pretty narrow really.



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