There has been plenty of discussion about the change in cooking shows in the last 40 years. In just two generations, cable TV transformed the genre from calm visits into Julia Child’s stately, well-appointed kitchen, to a cult of ultra-in-your-face personality featuring cutthroat competitions, intimate glimpses into unattainable celebrity life, or a combination of the two, not to mention culinary pornography that never lets up. Although Julia Roberts portrayed her as encouraging, in many ways even Julia Child ultimately served to deter viewers from the presumed mission of cooking nirvana. Indeed, one could say that she provided the prototype for all three of the above branches of cable food fetishism. Most watchers could never start as fortunately as Julia, spending all of their youth in adventure, giving way to a midlife in leisure pursuits, all the time surrounded by society. And Julia made French recipes look easy though in reality they never were easy, and never will be. I cooked under Louis Szathmary, one of America’s great continental chefs, and I have no illusion that French technique was ever easy. Today, with the everyday-gourmet movement, where we must throw a lavish international party every evening for our family, the stakes are even higher. The truth is that the so-called everyday cooking as it is promoted today requires leisure and skill development that most strapped families simply never will enjoy.
However, I would like to set this particular gripe aside, and glimpse how the producers of these modern shows operate. Two shows that put this into good relief are Food Network Star and Chopped. Here is where the somebodies and the nobodies meet. It is an aspirational exercise, close enough to our own reality that we who fancy ourselves fair cooks and entertainers can almost imagine we might one day be there ourselves. I watched the Season 10 contestants of Food Network Star. One judge said that “Everyone coming on this show knows how to cook. What we’re looking for are people who can convince the audience that they are something a cut above.” Clearly, this meant not only cooking creativity, but also screen appeal. The first contestant eliminated was Donna Sonkin Shaw. Donna’s story is that she started out overweight and is now trim and gorgeous. Her focus is on holistic health.
Donna’s stage presence was the chief thing that killed her. Donna had many other traits that might excite the audience. For one thing, her fetching good looks and bright smile made Giada de Laurentiis look like a gorgon. But Donna had a forced theatrical ebullience that gave an appearance, if not the actuality, of insincerity. She just was not yet comfortable facing a crowd. The producers deliberately created this high-pressure atmosphere, though none of the real celebrities necessarily had to go through with such an ordeal in their careers. These were allowed to acclimatize to fame. Or, like Giada and many others, they were born in the limelight. There was frequent directorial interplay between cuts to Donna’s several faux pas and Giada’s contempt. There was another contestant — a blonde, self-described pageant maven from Texas named Sarah Penrod — who was quickly eliminated due to similar problems. Giada might have honored these women for their beauty if they were not so awkward. But while they had beauty, they lacked the poise that Giada knew was so necessary for stardom. They also lacked the proper grandparents, but this may never occur to Giada de Laurentiis any more than it would to Ivanka Trump. Alongside Giada’s individual prejudices, what the directors exaggerated were the glitches in these individuals’ presentations, and the sophisticated and contemptuous reaction shots from all the other tastemakers who should know what is good and bad.
Food Network’s direction in their competition-format shows borrows heavily from reality TV and sitcom formulae. The most important cinematographic feature of these is the reaction shot, reinforced by musical effects, like short “stingers” to accent a moment, and visual effects like shakycam. These effects take only a fraction of a second and we are so accustomed to them that we are rarely aware of their presence. But they define our attitude toward each person on screen. The director will take the most uncharismatic moment in a contestant’s footage, and follow it with a beat, a tension stinger, and an annoyed reaction shot from someone we admire, to accentuate the level of dissonance and to leverage our buy-in to the developing prejudices. There are also cuts to brief bites from candid interviews with the embattled contestant, other contestants, or the judges, giving subtle background commentary to set the contestant up for the fall. Furthermore, the high tension is created from a mad cutting and pasting of disparate grins, smiles, grimaces, grunts, looks askance, and other sights and sounds so irrespective of actual events that it can be argued to step over the cliff of ethicality. All is timed with deliberate discomfort in mind, the victim being the contestant who will soon be ostracized.
Naturally, the editing comes after filming, and the judges may be presumably innocent. However, everything from casting to wrap is more or less calculated for its potential to keep the audience glued to the set. Furthermore, they have been doing this for years. So casting probably already knows something about the approximate outcome, even from the first interview.
This kind of casting, direction, and editing both deflates the contestant into an “out crowd” position, and aggrandizes the judges and reinforces their “in crowd” status. Those contestants not eliminated want to stay in the “in crowd” and are threatened with being “out” if they do not shape up.
I also watched Episode 241 (Season 19, Episode 11) of Chopped, which aired May 27, 2014. This show eliminated Ariane Resnick, a private chef in Los Angeles. Resnick was not the most likely candidate for Food Network success. This is not an indictment of her per se; in fact, given what we already know about the limited range of acceptable types, it could be taken as a compliment. Resnick once developed a popular brand of kale chip and she also has several celebrity private catering clients. In her interview, she stated she “caters to food restrictions, from gluten-free to raw vegan to paleo.” I do not even know what paleo is. Resnick’s entire appearance seems out of place. She has a somewhat nervous appearance. Her plain long hair, white and black, gives her natural beauty a bit of an edgy Addams Family punk cover which could be to her advantage or could go against her, depending on whether she is able to join the “in crowd” or “out crowd.” On a Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands background, she might immediately be accepted and even praised. Today’s chefs, in fact, are often quirky artists. The pantheon of cooking stars abounds with quirky personalities, from Jeff Smith and Keith Floyd to Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, and Jamie Oliver. There are even a couple of women, such as Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark, who are on the quirky side. But their appeal is that they come as a pair; their mutual gawkiness is synergistic. Still, on a mass-market reality cooking show, we are looking for a good deal of charisma that may be difficult for Resnick to summon forth in a pleasing way for the producers.
Of course, the show’s producers are well aware of Resnick’s failure in advance, or at least of the great likelihood of it. True, on Chopped there is the possibility of a sleeper case in which the ugliest, most socially awkward, and least outwardly talented contestant will astound the world, somewhat like singer Susan Boyle’s 2009 setup on Britain’s Got Talent. The producers may hope for such a pleasant shock. But in fact, as is likely with the Susan Boyle story, even accepting an element of chance in the game, they usually have a pretty good idea beforehand of how things will turn out.
Ariane Resnick performed unpredictably, but only in that she probably provided more entertainment value than the producers originally bargained for. She played the expected role of her “type” extraordinarily well. Show staff increased the likelihood of difficulty: the all-important entree course involved salami and chicken breast, something that will usually shake a vegetarian. Concern over this, or perhaps the fact that the roving camera was up very close to the cutting board, may have helped cause Resnick suddenly to cut her finger just when the camera was zoomed in. Such a classic Food Network competition pratfall will rarely fail to entertain. But in this case, directors pulled out all of the stops. In their planning and editing, producers “permitted” Resnick to rise to the occasion. They made her look as incompetent as possible. “Wow. Ariane has cut herself,” cooed host Ted Allen with furrowed brow. “It sounds like she’s — she’s pretty upset about it.” After the grips removed the contaminated cutting board and food, they presented Resnick’s explanation in a side interview: “I had to get different ingredients because I decided those were not lucky ingredients.” Naturally, the directors could not resist airing those precious words. I do not know what recorded gems they have cut from Giada de Laurentiis reels, but they certainly made hay by creating a perception of Ariane Resnick being a nut.
To make matters worse, the piezo igniter on Resnick’s stove soon began unaccountably firing and she could not turn it off. Resnick was shaken, she explained, “because of what I have been through, involving stoves trying to kill me.” Judge Scott Conant concluded, “What we’re looking for are people who perform well under pressure, not people who need therapy.” Such an assessment is presumptuous and unkind. I imagine if he were a gentleman, he might have preferred that those words be dropped. Even better, he might have restrained himself from making such an arrogant remark. But his contempt is programmed in. Truly, what producers want is to create a burlesque, to expose the most unappetizing personalities imaginable. They could not resist. Conant himself, too, would seem to be safe: After all, his august reputation will have most of us buy into the fact that his assessment is valid and not unkind at all. In a single sentence, the production is vindicated and all insiders remain “inside”; Ariane Resnick is sent “outside”; and the stereotype is reinforced that a thin, somewhat overcautious vegetarian has no business breaking into our consciousness. In fact, by extension this means that Resnick is hardly alone outside: she is socioculturally ostracized with all others of that type. This type, declares Food Network, is not to be tolerated on television.
Later, using her YouTube account, Resnick shows what a good sport she is by laughing it all off, even laughing at the things she herself said. But there are cruelties afoot.
In effect, Food Network directors manipulated the entire show, including Resnick and the audience, throughout this editing.
The producers do, however, accommodate the many flaws of their stable of stars. Giada de Laurentiis had little to recommend her to any lowbrow audience except her fabulous ancestry and wealth. She is not even so strikingly attractive in the face; though she has lovely eyes, elsewhere she has masculine notes; furthermore, she looks practically anorexic. She is also no particularly talented cook. It can be argued that her name primarily gave her a career.
In fact, de Laurentiis herself cut her finger on live air during a special last Thanksgiving. Alton Brown came to her rescue, diverting attention on Twitter with his brand of deflective humor, while she herself showed photos and jested about it on Instagram. The tone of the overall message to us is, “Ha ha, even international cooking superstars can have a bad day.” Such a superstar could never have bad knife skills, and her supporters are required to laugh it off and pretend it was just a fluke. But any properly trained cook, and particularly one so seasoned in technique as Alton Brown, must have seen that de Laurentiis is not especially competent with that most important tool of the trade, the chef’s knife. Food Network chooses carefully how it frames something like this. And if it had not been a live show, they would never have aired the mishap and we no doubt never would have heard of it. On the Today Show the following day, de Laurentiis said, “We don’t normally do live TV, so these things usually get hidden. This didn’t get hidden.” My guess is that this is not the first time she has cut herself on camera. Only a relative unknown will be harshly judged for cutting a finger on camera, and that judgment will be nothing less than that they must be poor cooks.
Despite her lack of qualifications, Giada de Laurentiis has the audacity to teach knife skills to new cooks. As she hawks her own name-brand knives in a YouTube Food Network video, in almost every shot one can see significant flaws in Giada de Laurentiis’ knife technique, flaws that probably caused her own on-camera knife mishap. It is not difficult to see from this video and elsewhere that Giada de Laurentiis, viewed the world over as a master chef, is not very comfortable or competent with a chef’s knife. As a matter of fact, she is downright bad at it. She should never be teaching it. Nevertheless, millions of aspiring cooks all over the globe assume that Giada knows how to teach us to use a chef’s knife. Food Network, if it even took notice, would never intervene and correct this serious problem.
My own advice to Giada de Laurentiis, Ariane Resnick, and other reputed cooks is to practice keeping some of the second knuckles in physical contact with the broad side of the chef’s knife, and the tips of the fingers curled back underneath them, whenever possible while slicing or chopping. This should practically eliminate the possibility of ever getting nicked or cut. I am not famous for anything, but I have cooked in several restaurants in my life. In fact, I learned this technique at my first restaurant gig, at the tender age of 11. (This was before child labor laws were seriously enforced, and children were on a longer leash.) I learned it from a wonderfully cheerful old line cook named Harvey, who had three joints missing from his dark brown, weathered left hand.
De Laurentiis’ co-judge Alton Brown has a wonderful demonstration as he himself hawks the Shun brand of chef’s knife. Between 7:00 and 10:30 in this video, Brown shows not only excellent guide-hand knuckle position in both chopping and slicing with a chef’s knife, he also deliberately demonstrates the bad technique that Giada incorrectly teaches in her own video. He says this technique is so wrong that “it gives me the heebies just to think about it.” Only, apparently, when Giada does it, it’s charming. It must be noted that Alton Brown did not tweet, “Giada, darling, you’re an established, internationally recognized food guru and you graduated from Cordon Bleu; why the hell don’t you know how to use a chef’s knife?”
For his part, Bobby Flay has a snotty, ever-supercilious look about him, exhibits what looks like hypocrisy in his grace, and to this day lacks much stage presence. Often he comes off as downright antisocial. It’s very hard to like this guy from looks alone, assuming we are shallow and prejudiced about such aspects. (And I say most of us are, even if we do not admit or recognize it.) But over the years Flay has become a talented and resourceful cook beyond the grill. Iron Chef work, for example, is no mean feat. Producers, through their choice of show formulae and editing, have translated Flay’s apparent image flaws into a boyish competitive appeal. There are many others in the Food Network stable worth comment, but de Laurentiis and Flay are two of the three current judge-mentors on Food Network Star presuming to pass sentence on others. When these two began their on-air careers, even under contract they were no less gawky and wet behind the ears than those whom they criticize. It seems a much higher standard now exists, and these contestants are being held to it. If these two celebrities were put at the receiving end of such a critical spotlight even today, they would fall far short. But Food Network directors, in the editing, have built respect and trust of them among their audience of millions. It is not so much a cooperative effort between producer and consumer — there is a great deal of manipulative power in the hands of the producer.
Let’s keep in mind that screen media are an intensification of the theatrical mode, which itself is a sensory condensation and enhancement of reality. In our real experience, our eyes and ears see first what is happening mostly right in front of us, surrounded by the atmosphere. What is happening across the room or the garden is usually secondary, since under our noses is what is closest and loudest. Direction is a sleight of hand, a magic trick, a highly manipulative venture. Several cameras and microphones are in the studio, covering several views and aspects, zooming in and out, running over and getting detail, with grips following everywhere with the boom microphone. At any given moment there may be half a dozen of these busy video-audio duos zooming in and out of different areas of interest in the studio. Later, the directors sit in front of the several screens and discard about 95% of the recorded material — which itself is only a tiny fraction of the hours of dozens of life experiences threading in and out of the event. They carefully select what will make for the best theater, and in so doing they do not permit us to wander around the set but effectively take our heads and put them where they want us to be. They do further manipulation in how they stitch the entire work together, and in the audio and other effects. We are served this highly elaborated product, and cannot see a single detail that the directors do not allow us to see. They seize our heads and push our faces wherever they choose. They press our eyes and hold our ears up to this or that activity, whenever and however they choose. They play on our emotions with music and lighting effects. For this they not only never apologize, they attack us with commercials at numerous opportune interruptions.
The genre of “reality TV” is therefore not true to its name. It may begin with some realistic ground rules. If these rules are truly adhered to and not doctored themselves, then the culprit is primarily in the direction and above all in the editing. That presumably honest judges and others in power have not spoken out on this is troubling, but one should expect this: after all, there are plenty of people who would be glad to replace them and turn a blind eye to the problem.
I write this not to point up the specific hypocrisies, since — well, to put it bluntly,who really cares? Will knowing this cure AIDS or cancer? Will it feed and clothe the starving millions? After all, among thousands of possible daily diversions we can switch to, we believe there are only one or two cooking channels that seem to cheat us, and cheat their more or less complicit, mostly upper-middle class clamberers who honor the Giada de Laurentiises and Bobby Flays of this world. And we already know all about this problem, don’t we? We can always change the channel, we argue, or go to the store, or read a novel. The point is that I believe that the prejudices that spawn such distasteful and perhaps even immoral ideas and techniques, and the many related signs of cultural poverty, are on all channels at all times, in all stores and most public places, and even in many characters in many novels, everywhere on Earth. This engine of prejudice is built into nearly every momentary decision criterion that nearly every entertainment professional, copywriter, or marketing person brings to bear against our embattled retinas and eardrums. Perhaps it is what, even long ago, Hermann Hesse, in Steppenwolf, could see,
when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic… .
Hesse wrote in 1927, decades before mass media came into its own as the media industrial complex we are familiar with today. How much better and more subtle is the creative profession at this? Why do we still indulge them so readily? What can we as individuals really do to resist this, to counter it, to speak out against it? Can our little activities do anything, or do we need much more radical and aggressive means? Or is there really no danger at all?
There is danger, I feel, because this goes far beyond entertainment. Our entire social world operates in this fashion. People are constantly turned down for jobs or services, fired, arrested, ostracized, ignored, disciplined, beaten, laughed at, and otherwise mistreated by this engine. Others, equally undeserving, are thought to be deserving merely because they are attractive, or wealthy, or powerful, or happen to be someone’s grandchild. Popular media both reflects and reinforces these real-world prejudices. All of us make presumptuous mistakes every day through our prejudicial misappraisals. Do not think I am overreaching: I am probably not reaching nearly far enough. Lives are at stake here. As with the media, unless everyday people are clear and honest in their own personal “editorial work” in the world, they will be taken in by this and will run the risk of continuing to participate in it. Editorial clarity means to be constantly mindful and skeptical of our own beliefs about others, sensitive to and corrective of our own misactions, and outspoken about the errors of others.