Making sense of America's celebrity-chef culture.
Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Over the course of the next few years, the Food Network would expand its programming, talent, and reach--it is currently available on all seven continents. Profitability also crept upward: This past year, according to a trade publication, the network's revenue from ad sales and licensing fees alone came to more than $488 million. The network also moved to a bigger and better space in lower Manhattan. Appropriately enough, the new offices are in the very building that once housed the National Biscuit Company--Nabisco--makers of such guilty pleasures as Nutter Butter, Mallomars, and Chips Ahoy! The Oreo was invented here in 1912. Today the complex is known as Chelsea Market.
On the third floor is the network lobby, sleek and citrusy in appearance with lots of greens, yellows, and oranges. Near the reception desk, a flat-screen is showing Inside Dish with Rachael Ray. Carrie Welch, the director of public relations, is kind enough to give me a tour of the facilities, which take up all of three floors. One of the first stops is the green room--a waiting area for the talent. There are actually two green rooms: one for Rachael Ray and Emeril (he normally likes a fruit plate) and another for everyone else.
On the sixth floor are the production kitchens for shows like Emeril Live, 30 Minute Meals, and Iron Chef America as well as the test kitchen for every recipe to be aired. This is also the site of the demo station for Throwdown with Bobby Flay. (A chef and restaurateur who specializes in the flavors of the Southwest, Flay has developed the "throwdown" as his TV gimmick: He turns up unannounced, camera crew in tow, and challenges a chef with a signature dish--cheesesteak, fish and chips, chicken cacciatore--to a contest to see whether the chef or Bobby Flay can make it better.)
After the food and ingredients for one of these shows are prepped in the kitchen, they are sent off to Studio A, home to Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse, and Iron Chef America. (Some of the "beauty shots" of hands adding ingredients are taped.) The set is deceptively smaller than on camera--Emeril's audience numbers 185 and is chosen by lottery. The guest count for Iron Chef America--on which chefs compete to devise the best menu around a secret ingredient revealed at the last minute--is even smaller, at 50, and is by invitation only.
The ever-expanding reach of the Food Network and the constant churning of talent drove one chef over the edge. Last February, the always outspoken Anthony Bourdain had had enough of the "ascent of the Ready-Made bobblehead personalities" and posted a diatribe to that effect on food writer Michael Ruhlman's blog. Bourdain, author of the bestselling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and star of No Reservations on the Travel Channel, lamented the lack of quality programming on the Food Network and the failure of some hosts to inspire and challenge viewers to cook better food. The item generated more than 700 comments, largely sympathetic.
Bourdain opened his critique by sharing "some thoughts on the Newer, Younger, More Male-Oriented, More Dumb-Ass Food Network." But he also went after (no surprise) Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee (calling the latter "pure evil") while praising Alton Brown, Emeril, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and even Giada De Laurentiis.
When asked what prompted his ferocious and salty screed, Bourdain traced his "intermittent sense of nausea and outrage" to some of the messages celebrity chefs were conveying, particularly Rachael Ray. "My criticism is not so much that her food suffers by comparison to restaurant food," he told me. "It's that she cheats. She tells people you don't even have to dice an onion. A prechopped onion bought in a supermarket first of all tastes terrible. It's a completely different flavor. To ignore that is to lie. It's also more expensive. So to claim you are helping working families by suggesting such a thing is shameful. And I find, frankly, when you are as powerful and as influential as she is, particularly with kids, to serve food that is clearly unhealthy and to endorse a product like Dunkin' Donuts--I mean, how much money do you need?"