That there would be an entire television network devoted to food seems to me the most reasonable thing in the world, certainly more likely in a basic human sense than networks devoted to history or cartoons or auto racing or the purchase by telephone of crap whose common distinction is that you do not need it. Bread may be the thing man cannot live alone by, but it is the one thing he can’t live without. (And some butter would be nice.) Food is both the sign of the providence of god and the one really sensual indulgence allowed to every man, woman and child without censure; sinfully delicious, a dessert may be called; caffeine, sugar, tryptophan are the socially acceptable drugs. Even the bad food we eat makes us happy — I will not deny you the satisfaction of your Big Mac — and even bad people have good food memories: To every condemned man his last meal. Proust wrote his seven big volumes because of a cookie. Food binds generations, defines nations.
And so the Food Network, launched in 1993 and available currently in more than 56 million U.S. TV homes, sister network to the slightly more successful Home & Garden TV. A slow starter, like most cable nets, which are typically around long before you even have a chance to notice them, it is a growing thing, this Food Network, with a slate of new shows set for summer and fall (it fills a lot of space now with reruns), including real-life Cooking School Stories, and My Country, My Kitchen, wherein American chefs get back to where they once belonged. It is promising “food programming as it relates to travel and adventure, pop culture, healthy eating, and even reality-based human-interest stories,” as if there weren’t already enough real human interest in simply getting a cake to rise. Says network president Judy Girard, “We are only beginning to explore the diversity of programming that we can create around food as a lifestyle category.”
Now, when I hear the word lifestyle I reach for my revolver — the remote control, I mean, the channel revolver. Food is life, but lifestyle isn’t life, it isn’t even a way of life — it’s an impression of life, made up of stuff and expenditure. Lifestyle is ads without editorial. (And the ads on the Food Network are nicely ironic, selling diets — including one that promises you will lose 10 pounds in two days — exercise programs, frozen food and Red Lobster restaurants.) As to the new “diversity of programming,” which is to say more programs that look like programs on other networks, this does little for me, since the more the network leaves the kitchen — the more it neglects the classic cook-and-counter format for travel features or restaurant reports, with their little bits of scripted humor, their regular folks eatin’ and cookin’, their bad happy soundtracks and rambunctious video camerawork — the less singular, the less engaging, the less useful, the less essential it becomes.
The heart and soul of the network, the firmament where shine its stars — Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Sara Moulton, Ming Tsai, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali and lately Wolfgang Puck — is the cooking show, as codified by Julia Child (on the sublime side) and Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet (on the ridiculous), programs wherein raw ingredients are transformed by ordinary alchemy into something rare (or medium-rare) and delightful. (Food Network airs old shows of both Child and Kerr in the wee hours.) If food is life (and art and science — there is a good deal of physics, chemistry, botany and biology propounded in the best of these shows), to cook is to master life, and chefs in this metaphor constitute a kind of priestly caste: saucier sorcerers. The network’s ultimate expression of cooking as mastery of the elements is the Japanese import Iron Chef, for some time a cult sensation for its amusing Godzilla-redolent dubbed dialogue, its martial-arts approach to food preparation, and the exotic (to use the friendliest word) multicourse meals its contestant-chefs must improvise under pressure in the “Kitchen Stadium.”
Iron Chef is an oddity, though; strung out along the more familiar Child-Kerr spectrum are the network’s resident celebrities, each with his or her individually tailored kitchen space and personal vibe, from chirpy-cool Sara Moulton to puckish Wolfgang Puck to compulsive crowd-pleaser Emeril Lagasse. It does not matter what they cook so much as who they are. Most are in their mid-30s to early 40s, and if you factor out the reruns they run overwhelmingly to male — reflecting perhaps the inequities of the restaurant world, but also the fact that cooking now is a manly, even sexy art. (You use knives, after all, and fire.) On Hot off the Grill, curly-haired regular-guy guy Bobby Flay enlists good-looking women to help him slice and stir; his show has a kind of loft-party vibe. Then there’s Mario Batali, of Molto Mario, with his baggy shorts and clogs and ponytail, who seems to know everything worth knowing about dead animals. (“Melted pig, this is lard, it tastes good, get used to it.”) And there’s young Jamie Oliver, of the British import The Naked Chef, who’s always throwing a party for someone, and cooks in his own tiny kitchen, reaching as needed to the window box for herbs. “Ya get your old fork yeah and you go wabababababababa” and “That’s it mate happy days easy peasy whack it in the oven” are typical Oliverisms. With his groovy pad and motorcycle and New London energy, Oliver is easy to hate, yet hard to dislike.
New Orleans–based Emeril Lagasse is the network’s breakout star and its prime exponent of the Kerr tradition of cooking as wacky fun. The studio audience at Emeril Live comports itself as if at a rock concert, with spontaneous shouts of “Emeril!” and hoots and hollers at each utterance of the chef’s famous catch phrases, “Bam!” and “Let’s kick it up a notch,” or indeed any mention of pepper or garlic. I saw yogurt get applause once. Lagasse has been liberated by his celebrity and shtick: On his first series, The Essence of Emeril, which still reruns on the network and was shot without an audience, he seems slow and thick, as though covered in molasses; on Emeril Live, before an adoring crowd, he operates at a faster, higher, more physical (though still slightly awkward) pitch. I do find it tiring, however, all that hilarity.
What Lagasse does share with his colleagues, and what makes him interesting in spite of his kicked-up notches, is that he knows what he’s doing. The deeper appeal of all these shows, beyond the specific allure of any given dish, is the demonstration of assured skill: the technical knowledge, the practiced wrist, the perfectly executed cut, the cool air of effortlessness — Ming Tsai never nicks a finger with his Kyocera ceramic knife. This is a beautiful thing. And the message is that you can do it too. “Today we’re going to bake a chocolate soufflé cake,” says Martha Stewart on her From Martha’s Kitchen. “This cake was specifically designed for two kinds of people — those who adore chocolate, and those of you who think you can’t bake a cake.” Stewart, our great champion of household self-actualization, is Lagasse’s polar opposite, all calm collection: She projects an aura of gracious Yankee Zen, communicating a lot with a little — the approving smile, the lifted eyebrow, the gentle stress on a word like delicious — and never breaking a sweat. Her more animated consoeur, Gourmet magazine executive chef Sara Moulton, of the actually live Cooking Live, is the network’s only real female kitchen professional (not counting the rerun Julia Child, to whom Moulton was once an assistant, and Two Fat Ladies). Moulton is attractively digressive and distracted, her show and counter more cluttered than most, but she proves herself time and again a mistress of multitasking, keeping several pots in the air, as it were, answering viewers’ call-in questions while cooking multicourse meals, butt-bumping shut the refrigerator door when her hands are full. She is all about managing chaos. “All righty, then” is her mantra.
Television is, mostly, a medium of lies, useless facts and bad attractions. But a cooking show asks you only to believe that the right ingredients (substitutions allowed) in the right proportions, or close enough, prepared with the right tools, or close enough, will give good results. “Everything’s going to be okay — lighten up — it’s just cooking,” says Emeril. He offers a particularly religious figure: “If you’ve got fish stock, great. If you don’t, use water. Hey, use wine.” And this is a valuable idea. And even possibly true.