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Bill Mehlman

Reality cooking shows: Whose reality?

By Bill Mehlman
September 28, 2009

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ENOUGH ALREADY about health care reform - it’s time to give reality cooking shows the town-hall treatment.

Unless somebody’s been holding out on me, Smell-o-Vision and Taste-a-Rama aren’t available yet from local cable companies. Reluctantly, therefore, I’ll concede that the emphasis on technique and presentation in the current crop of reality cooking shows makes sense, however dismal. Viewers can’t taste the food; we have to accept the judges’ verdicts on how these super-novas of creativity actually taste. Whether some of these jurists have a clue is a whole other kettle of fish.

My real beef with this focus - I never understood the metaphor there, but it’s better than saying, “my real veal,’’ or “my real sweetbreads’’ - is that this prioritization of the visual aspects of cooking, this emphasis on technique and forced creativity, keeps taking us further and further from what I always assumed was the point of cooking: making our nutritional intake enjoyable by making food taste good.

One flight up, the chefs who have made it into the Pantheon, who have developed their own cults of personality, are compounding the felony. The hunger for fame (and a spiffy TV contract and lots of endorsements) drives these young men and women relentlessly in search of novelty and immediately recognizable style points.

One of the professional food service journals I read has a handful of recipes created by chefs who were featured in that month’s issue. Some look great. Some don’t appeal to me on the basis of my food preferences, although in fairness I’ll eat almost anything except lima beans and fried clam bellies. (Save your breath, New Englanders. It’s not a value judgment. I got deathly ill on fried clams ages ago and the very thought makes me cringe.) Some of them are just ridiculous.

Possibly it’s my Russian peasant ancestry, but I have issues with a recipe that includes 50 ingredients, the last being micro kohlrabi, for garnish, and takes me longer to peruse than it would to eat. There’s also a lot of cutesy menu writing; anyone whose mouth starts watering when he reads “. . .with white peach peel air and ham velouté’’ is either more refined or much, much hungrier than I am. Ditto for “Five Stages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Five Consistencies.’’ And anyone want to take a stab at explaining what, in the context of a dessert, “corn soil’’ means?

I could go on - a dish from a currently white-hot chef features “burning oak leaves’’ as part of its garnish, and another young paragon, in his list of ingredients, specifies which Northwestern Native American foragers are the sole acceptable source of the gooseneck barnacles for his masterpiece. This doesn’t begin to relate what the true pioneers are doing with foams and gels and puppy-dog tails under the banner of “molecular cuisine.’’ Yes. I get it. But everything is molecular, and I’d prefer to restrict my food to stuff that actually grew on, or in, the earth, not in a lab.

Speaking of cooking shows, my current favorite is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’’ known to its fans by the snazzy nickname “Triple D.’’ This is a reality show. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, even though I suspect it may be sponsored by whichever BigPharma company manufactures Lipitor. The host, Guy Fietti, has his own cult of personality, but his most rigid ukase seems to be, “More melted cheese.’’ For the most part, “plating’’ seems to consist of trying to get 3,400 calories worth of fried something on one 10-inch plate without the dreaded “hang-over’’ effect.

The cooks, most of whom would hit you with a meat mallet if you called them “chef,’’ do use a lot of technical terms that might throw the lay person, words like “smush’’ and “whack.’’ There’s lots of grilling and smoking, and chili peppers by the proverbial peck. May not be the most healthful stuff, but I’m betting that the joy of eating a perfect pulled-pork sandwich is worth the risk.

Now, if only Guy Fietti would co-host “Triple-D’’ with Padma Lakshmi, I’d be really joyful.

Bill Mehlman is a New York-based writer and retired chef.

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