Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TV Chefs: From Culinary Teachers to Reality Show Stars

Smile, You're on Camera 


What is it that makes food and television go so well together—or, more to the point, achieve such high ratings? Apart from major sporting events and royal weddings, few U.K. programs generate such large audiences year after year as "MasterChef," now in its 17th series since it relaunched in 2005. "Celebrity MasterChef," one of the show's four current strands, recently drew eight million viewers. It isn't just in the U.K. that the show is popular—last year's finale of Australian "MasterChef" caused the traditional leaders' debate in the country's elections to be delayed because the time slots would have clashed.

"There have been three ages of TV chef programs," says Peter Bazalgette, who has produced more than 3,000 episodes of the groundbreaking BBC series "'Food and Drink," and the more populist "Ready, Steady, Cook." He went on to perfect the reality TV show "Big Brother," which is equally praised and reviled. "Until the '70s, the chef, such as Julia Child, would merely stand behind a counter with a bowl and simply tell you what to do. Then the formula changed, with the chef trying to do amusing things to entertain the viewer, until the current phase in this century, where you basically have a reality show, with a celebrity chef in difficult situations. This could be Jamie Oliver trying to make Americans eat healthily or Gordon Ramsay in one of his 'Kitchen Nightmares.' What we discovered was that the best chefs are extrovert showmen, martinets, so now they are full-throated reality shows."

It has become commonplace for aspiring media personalities who once headed to the jungle to enhance their image to now try their hand at cooking competitively in "Celebrity MasterChef." Even those well-established in gastronomic circles are branching into TV. Simon Hopkinson, one of the most private and highly regarded food writers in Britain, has renounced his earlier pledge never to appear on TV—his new series, "The Good Cook," starts next week on BBC One in the U.K.

Matthew Fort, a food writer and judge on "The Great British Menu," says one reason for the plethora of programs is that they are relatively cheap to make, and while gardening or DIY programs have loyal followings too, not everyone has a garden or the desire to do home repairs—but everyone eats three times a day.

He has a point. Food programs are attracting a wider audience. "I think what happened on 'MasterChef' was, for the first time, viewers witnessed ordinary people who were really good at something —just people who could have lived next door or been on the bus. And during the length of the program, they went on to be exceptional chefs and then do something different with their lives," says Karen Ross, the executive producer of the U.K. "MasterChef" series. "It was celebratory—something that everyone can relate to, because even if they don't cook, they all eat," she adds. "The big thing is the audience can relate in terms of 'I could do that, or be that—I really hate my job in the call center or as a doctor or a plumber, and this could free me in some way.'"

But with all this attention and excitement about cooking shows, the puzzling thing is that it doesn't seem to have translated into higher quality standards for food consumption as a whole.

Mr. Fort says food programs do have an impact in broadening public knowledge about different cuisines, but not when it comes to healthier eating. "If you look at the external evidence regarding the public's diet and overweight issues it is not very encouraging," he says. "The sales of prepared meals and microwaves are going up—families prefer to watch television together rather than eat together." But he adds that some shows, like Jamie Oliver's quest to improve school dinners, do help increase awareness about specific foods—even if they don't change the national diet. "When [British chef] Delia Smith uses cranberries or goose fat on a cookery program, there is a 3,000% sales increase, though admittedly from a fairly low base," Mr. Fort adds.

TV programs can also help boost chefs' profiles. "There is no better PR than a TV show if you are a chef," says Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger restaurant in Massachusetts, who has presented programs on the Food Network and PBS for more than a decade. "Suddenly people want to interview you about any subject under the sun and they will also want to try your restaurant—at least once. I put it down to what I call the irrational power of television." He voices concern, however, about those celebrity cooks whose primary goal appears to simply be famous. (Not that he doesn't participate in the new style of TV shows himself; he recently reached the semifinals in the popular U.S. series "The Next Iron Chef.") "Of course, 95% of good chefs are not on television," Mr. Tsai says. "And as for the ones who are but do not have a restaurant, I don't consider them to be chefs, merely culinary entertainers."

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