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How is TV Shaping Today’s Food Culture?

August 17th, 2009

As we get ready to unleash our pilot television show on Food Network in the months ahead, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what role television plays in defining our national food culture. I’ve been coming across quite a few culinary blogs whose content and comments are surprisingly critical of the perceived trend away from the high-level master chefs of 1990s television and towards personality-driven, commercialized culinary celebrities and reality drama.

Certainly, we serious food enthusiasts appreciate learning from the esteemed chefs like Jacques Pepin, Jacques Torres, and Hubert Keller, who still grace the airwaves on many PBS affiliates. On the other hand, a good thing about the personality-driven, less formally trained TV celebrities of other networks is that they bring a fresh, new level of interest in cooking to mainstream America. While they don’t elevate cuisine to the level of some of the greats, that’s exactly their point. Instead, they inspire a wide, new cross-section of America to spend time in the kitchen and gather friends and family together around food – which in my book is a worthwhile return to old-fashioned interests that hearken back to simpler, happier times. I like seeing more and more people demand fresh hormone-free meats and local organic produce to incorporate into their simple home-cooked meals. Even the most uncomplicated family dinner is wonderful and rewarding, and I applaud the trend of bringing cooking more and more into the mainstream.

I believe that Food Network in particular is doing a fantastic job of creating an exciting and compelling modern-day extension of Julia Child’s early success in bridging the gap between fine cuisine and a mainstream audience of home cooks. Just like today’s culinary TV stars, she was undoubtedly a personality-driven celebrity, and people thought, ‘if she can do it, then I can do it,’ which is not so different from what Paula Deen or Rachael Ray do today, even if their recipes aren’t classical French cuisine. Because they are down-to-Earth, today’s successful television chefs make cooking less intimidating and more approachable for the average person. As a result, it seems almost everyone now considers him- or herself a “foodie.” In fact, small-town America can now buy big-city ingredients like pink sea salt at Target or Thai fish sauce at Wal-Mart, which to me is an exciting validation of food culture expanding beyond the “in-group” culinary elite, even when for those in the “in-group,” it’s a devastating encroachment on their turf. What used to be unique has now become mainstream. But why is that so bad?

For more thoughts on this topic, I recommend the following article from the New York Daily News:
Article: Defining Food Snobs

-Tom Stieber, CEO

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