Thursday, September 1, 2011

All TV Cooks Are Created Equal?

Everyone is now well aware of the "fight" that has been going on between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen.  Food lovers and TV lovers everywhere are sitting back and munching on the popcorn as this plays out.  Armchair warriors for Team Tony and Team Paula are weighing in across the internet.  I have been leaving comments on forums and blogs everywhere.  I decided it was time to to do a blog of my own.

Every successful TV food personality has some kind of schtick, a persona that they present to the viewer.  That persona may or may not be related to the person they really are.  They do have maintain this image if they want to hold on to their base audience. 

Rachael Ray is the clean-cut perky girl next door who wants everyone to know she's not perfect.  She has to do this to make people feel comfortable with their own ignorance or incompetence.

Guy Fieri is the manchild frat boy who never grew up.  He wants to be the guy who hosts the tailgate party at every game.

Sandra Lee is the obsessive-compulsive homemaker who is in love, totally in llllllllove with everything she cooks.  She has to push that love as much as she can because she really needs to convince people that this food is gawna be good.

Giada DeLaurentis is subtly sexy and generally understated.   She tends to let her looks due the talking.  Quite obviously loves speaking Italian.

Paula Deen is your eccentric aunt who acts like a nice southern lady until she comes out with some naughty joke.  She wants to feed you and feed you a lot.  There is something very familial about her.  She wants to remind y'all that she's from the south though. 

Tony Bourdain is the cool badass dude who wants to show the world that he is willing to eat anything and everything and has extraordinary contempt for the conventional and commonplace.  He is somewhat like Guy Fieri in some ways.  Fieri doesn't want to leave the frat house.  Bourdain still wants to be one of the cool kids who hangs in smoky bars, flirts with danger, and tries to prove how cool he is by showing you how much he doesn't care.  He never quite grew up either.

Yes, Bourdain has a schtick just like any other TV personality.  Maybe it's authentic, but he definitely works hard to push that image out there and maintain it.  He really wants you to know his contrarian opinion in the hip and correct one.

Here is a good example of image management.  Contrast for a moment Tony Bourdain with Rachael Ray on the topic of smoking.  Bourdain wanted to let you know that he smoked and didn't care if you didn't like it.  Smoking on camera made him that much cooler.   It was a reminder that he didn't care about public opinion.  Ray kept her smoking habit under wraps for years because it would ruin her image as the clean-cut girl next door..  Although now claiming to have quit, she denied ever doing it until that photo of her holding a cigarette in front of the Louvre (and a mention or two on Gawker) kind of outed her as a smoker.  Bourdain has let us know that he didn't want to quit.  He did it for his child and if it weren't for that baby, he'd be doing it till it killed him.  Cigarettes, or lack thereof, were a huge part of image and image management for both of them.

An acquaintance of mine defended Bourdain recently saying that he "walks the walk."  He has tons of experience in professional kitchens.  He has written cookbooks.  He travels everywhere and eats all of the food.  He is serious.  He means business.  He has been there and done that and has earned the right to act the way he does because he does things no one else will do. I say that's fair enough, but just because not everyone has walked his walk doesn't mean their experience isn't valid.

Paula Deen worked her way up from nothing, overcoming crippling agoraphobia to create an incredibly successful restaurant business.  One would think that Bourdain, and others like him who like to bash Deen would give her credit. If she's such a terrible cook, then she probably wouldn't have had much success with her restaurant, would she?  Bourdain once said the definition of a chef is someone who has cooked as the head of a professional kitchen.  By Bourdain's own definition Paula Deen is chef.  Imagine that.

Foodies love to dismiss the whole gang of Food Network cooks as one large gang of untalented amateuers and that Sandra Lee is the equivalent of Paula Deen who is the equialent of Giada DeLaurenits.  I'm not sure where this comparison comes from.

DeLaurentis studied at Le Cordon Bleu and worked at Spago before becoming a food stylist and eventually landing on the Food Network. 

Guy Fieri lacks culinary school training, but has worked in restaurants including managing and owning them most of his life.

Sandra Lee is a failed decorator with no real food background.

Rachael Ray worked front of the house in restaurants and in food retail, but was never trained in cooking.  She had no food business of her own and taught basic cooking classes. 

We're dealing with a mix of experiences and skill levels here.  Hardly any of these cooks are the same.  Paula Deen has some cred in my opinion, although it may not be the most nuanced or sophisticated.  Watch her earliest episodes of Paula's Home Cooking and you will see something a bit different from what you see now.

I have mixed feelings about Paula Deen these days because of what has happened to her show.  I have talked about this before.  I have seen her cook things from scratch.  I have seen her cook outside of the comfort zone of her own sphere of cuisine (such as Italian and French dishes).  I have seen her cook things with reasonable amounts of fat.  Buried under that Food-Network-generated image there is someone who is somewhat competent - more so than some of her colleagues, although less so than many others. Her food may not be your cup of tea, but I'm not so sure all of it needs to be demonized.

I also think it's quite hypocritical to criticize the high fat food of Paula Deen when she is hardly the first cook in the world to cook with copious amounts of fat. I have remarked on more than one occasion that folks rarely call out Ina Garten on the obscene amounts of butter and cream that sometimes go into her dishes.  I guess a tony Hamptons address does miracles for your food's image.  Did Julia Child back off the butter?  I don't think so.  Pork belly, foie gras, proscuitto and various other artery-cloggers are all hip and trendy ingreidents and high-end, seemingly more respectable chefs are loading onto their menus.  Is fried chicken a lowbrow and unhealthful food?   It is unless Thomas Keller makes it.  That goes the same for macaroni and cheese, which graces so many pricey menus these days.  Comfort food is all the rage as long as it isn't made by someone who cooks comfort food habitually.  The Les Halles cookbook is chock full of heart attacks on a plate.  It's one thing to serve Cheez Whiz, Cool Whip, and onion soup mix (I'm looking at you Sandra Lee), but if butter is your biggest sin, then look in the mirror before criticizing anyone else.

I'm not saying that Bourdain doesn't have a point.  I think I have said enough times how much I can't stand Rachael Ray. I have been unable to find a single Sanrda Lee recipe that I would ever want to cook (and I've tried).  I hate the fact that cooking good decent homemade food is something that is now seen as complicated and elitist.  I wish that both the Food Network and the people who watch it would understand that there really is a middle ground between CIA-style cooking and throwing together a box of this and a can of that with a chicken breast.  You can create healthful food with a handful of  fresh ingredients and just a few basic techniques.  It's not as hard as the Food Network wants you to believe.  I also agree with Bourdain that we can't be pushing organics as the only food worth living when half the population can't afford such a lifestyle.  I agree with him on more topics than you would guess.  I just can't stand his presentation or his incredible judgmentalism.  It doesn't really add to his argument.

Paula - Go back to cooking the way you did ten years ago.  Make satisfying southern cuisine from scratch and throw a few surprises our way now and then.  Stop the cackling.  Cook food that you would be proud to serve in your restaurant.  I mean it about cutting back on the cackling.  Stop shilling for Smithfield.

Tony - Stop acting superior to everyone who doesn't cook or think like you.  I've never heard anyone say anything complimentary about Les Halles, so what does that say about your culinary talent?  (What?  You're not affiliated with Les Halles anymore? Then you really need to shut up.  You're not in the business yourself anymore it seems, so from what angle do you speak?)  Travel the world and show us international cuisines for our entertainment.  Just don't assume it makes you better than the rest of us.

Now please just go to your rooms and don't come out again until you learn to make nice.


Peter M said...

Nice one! I've enjoyed both this and the Pioneer post...I agree with you on both instances.

Sue said...

You put everything so clearly. You're so right that all these television food personalities have their own shtick and their own audience that they want to appeal to.

It's all about attracting the widest following possible, so they can sell more stuff. In this one area, Anthony Bourdain is at a clear disadvantage. But, actually, shouldn't we respect him more because he's not trying to get us to buy his knives, measuring cups or extra-large beach towels masquerading as dish towels? He’s just so darn unlikable, which, of course, is the whole idea.

At the end of the day, this feud between Anthony Bourdain and everyone else in the world isn’t a bad way to get a conversation started about what it would take to get us pointed in a healthier direction, foodwise. But his take-no-prisoners attacks unfortunately brings everything to a complete halt as we stop to defend our favorite foodies.

And, sorry, Paula's cackle doesn't bother me one bit, y'all. To me, her way of speaking (and laughing) is so exotic that I feel as if I'm watching someone from a different land.

A Feast for the Eyes said...

Bravo! I was nodding my head and smiling. Great points. I don't hate Rachael Ray's recipes. I just can't stand her.
Anthony Bourdain-- I've read his books. He's self-indulgent and he aint the be all he thinks he is. But, is this really just his PR that makes him act like that?
Sand Lee-- someone remove her tablescapes that looks like someone threw up doilies. Cannot stand her. Though, I did watch her Chefography, and I've got to respect how she survived her childhood.

Don't get me started on Guy Fieri. Puhleeze. I cannot stand him!

Would someone please get rid of the Neely's, too? That screechy voice. Aaaaaaaaaaah!

Last, but not least-- you are so right. Cooking doesn't always have to be like an Iron Chef. Simple ingredients, well-seasoned makes some of the tastiest meals I've had.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Peter - Aren't you still in Greece? I'm humbled you would drop by here!

Sue - You have always been more tolerant of over-the-top personalities than I am. Maybe it's because I tend to always go crazy myself that I don't tolerate it in others!

Debby - Can't...stop...laughing at your Sandra Lee comment. "Threw up doilies...OMG..." *catches breath.