To whom it may concern: I haven’t voiced a complaint since Land O’Lakes switched its butter wrapping from gold to silver foil — the same color as its margarine wrapping — thus leading to much confusion for me as a middle school chef. That was an unforgivable mistake, as I kindly explained to the call-center employee who took my call and humored me. She told me that the company appreciated my feedback and would seriously consider my suggestion. I urge you to do the same.
I’m afraid that you, the creators of food programming, are headed toward a similar mistake. While your hope is that America’s expanding waistline will lead to oversized ratings for shows reflecting what we see in the mirror, you’re neglecting the core tenet of what has made food reality TV successful in the first place: the food.
I mean, Suzilla: The Mouth That Roars and Fat Chef? These two food shows have debuted in the past month. The first, on Discovery’s Planet Green, promises an exciting journey alongside a competitive eater. Suzanne French is a new breed of big-eats contestants in that she’s a petite blonde and a woman. The second show is a Food Network program that sounds like a punch line but is a rip-off of NBC’s The Biggest Loser (one of that network’s few hits). Each week of the six-episode Fat Chef season features two chefs working alongside a trainer (one is — surprise! — former Biggest Loser trainer Brett Hoebel) in a struggle against being overweight in the very kitchens that made them obese.
The need for this new slate of reality programming is very much a problem of your own making, food-television programmers. In May 2010, Scripps Network Interactive — the media group that owns the Food Network — launched the Cooking Channel, slugged as “the network for food people, by food people.” It was an admission that the Food Network had morphed into something other than being about food, much as MTV, over time, divested itself of the music in its initials. Suddenly, there were two 24-hour cycles of continuous programming to fill. A year later, the programs in development are finally being put on the cable-TV table.
Remember when “food TV” meant smart, witty chefs working in kitchens and making us privy to their know-how? Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet’s Graham Kerr became famous for two simple reasons: They made cooking accessible, and they loved the ingredients in their bowls. Their celebrity was a result of genuine passion, and for 40 years the single-camera, single-chef approach was enough. A chef invited you into his or her kitchen and then proceeded to dazzle you with a spatula and some expertise. That same approach still results in household-name status for the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown and Rachael Ray. Unfortunately, synergy demanded that we find new uses for TV chefs, so off they went to sitcoms (the short-lived Emeril), daytime talk shows and episodic travelogues.
As a result, celebrity began to trump chef. We don’t know Anthony Bourdain for what he prepares on the plate. We just know that he’s a bad boy who will not suffer a bad dinner. The sizzle hasn’t just eclipsed steak but has become food-TV’s raison d’être. This is how we’ve arrived at Suzilla and Fat Chef.
The New York Times has called Suzilla “a little like pornography.” I watched the first episode and found it hard to disagree. There’s no pizza guy with tear-away pants, but everything else falls somewhere between innuendo and softcore. French is presented as America’s ideal woman. She’s a cute, bubbly Texan — and, boy, look at how much she puts in her mouth. In her first challenge, the fourth-ranked eater in the world attempts to conquer the Big Fat Fatty at Fat Sal’s in Los Angeles. It’s a cheese- and sauce-laden mix of pub food — onion rings, chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, fries — on a torpedo roll, and the restaurant claims that it can “feed 10 people.”
The owner of Fat Sal’s, a doppelgänger for Joe Rogan, informs French that he thought she’d be bigger. This is only moments after asking her if she had even “seen the thing.” His partner challenges French, who proceeds to shovel food in her mouth the way Paul Newman engulfs eggs in Cool Hand Luke.
Fat Chef, meanwhile, promises to examine what happens when chefs lose control and can’t stop eating. The first episode centers on Michael Mignano, a Long Island pastry chef who loves fast food and whose scale-busting weight is north of 500 pounds. The show drives home his personal failings while setting up the televised moment as his last chance at normal life — any life. The show’s determination to be Mignano’s savior moves from grating to overbearing in just an hour. A transformation (each of the cheftestants attempts to lose 25 percent of his or her body weight in 16 weeks) that should be triumphant falls as flat as a failed souffle.
Taken together, the two shows are indicative of what’s wrong with food TV. The same post-Nielsen algorithm that says we love celebrities also says we love to watch people consume ungodly amounts of food and then let TV producers intervene. It’s like we’re Hansel and Gretel, and the programmers are the witches.
Listen up, witches: Your shows aren’t about food. They’re about your viewers’ issues with food. The food is incidental. You could scroll up or down the cable-box channels and easily find similarly themed programs based on humankind’s inability to stop collecting (Hoarders) or shoot up heroin (Intervention). But food shouldn’t be lumped in with the addiction to shopping or hard drugs. Great food shows have an impact beyond our TV sets. Food on TV — the crack of egg shells and the hiss of oil, in high definition — can engage our senses and provoke memories.
Programmers, you’ve became too concerned with the packaging, forgetting that food shows need to be appetizing. And we’ll love the next Kerr or Child — maybe even the next Emeril — because the love of food comes through the screen. Don’t think our fingers are too fat to change channels, food-TV execs. Remotes are bigger, too — with bigger buttons.