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Aug 14, 2008 10:09 AM

On the Topic of TV Host Bashing

After recently reading "The United States of Arugula", which has several chapters on 80's & 90's "celebrity" chefs, I was reminded that people like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril are more than just celebrity spokesmodels. They fought their way to where they are and earned it. The fact they were personable in addition to being very talented led to their adoption by the various networks and product manufacturers. It's undoubtedly hard to say no to an income stream when you need to do very little to support it. So while it's easy to criticize them today for their ubiquitousness it's just mean-spirited to say that they're hacks or sell-outs (that goes for Rachel Ray, too. I personally find her irritating and that laugh makes me cringe but if there wasn't a market for what she does she wouldn't be a mega-celebrity).

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  1. The fact that there's a market for someone or something doesn't mean it has any redeeming value, especially in the context of a food site that purports to exploring the most delicious food experiences. American TV and mass commercialism in general shoot for the lowest common denominator - and in terms of food, that is most typically not the most delicious. Puck and Emeril worked hard, and were well established as premier chefs before TV - this is in the tradition of so many others that paved their way, from Franey and Pepin onward (not including Julia, despite her being the mother of all TV cooking, simply because she never was a working chef... a working spy, yes, but not a chef).

    But to put RR into that category is simply nonsense. RR may or may not have worked hard at her family's catering business, but to say that she has cooking chops from years of experience would be a major joke. She is a TV personality, made into one by Scripps/Howard and TV production companies (including Harpo) - simple as that. She is not a chef - she is a hack. She is popular based on her looks, personality, and production values - lowest common denominator stuff if ever there was any.

    Early TVFN was a different place. With Bourdain, Milliken and Feniger, Rosengarten, Moulton, etcetc... there was real data to be mined, real technique to be learned - real deliciousness to be made and understood. I've honestly never bought into the grow or die aspect of capitalism - a ma and pa can stay a ma and pa for years, so I don't understand why TVFN had to sell out to S/H other than the greed of the owners (it had already changed hands before then). But of course, once growth became the goal, then the very nature of growth meant the lowering of the common denominator. That's where Rachel Ray, the head and tits, and Sandra whatever-the-fuck she does with boxes and cans, come into the picture. But let's not conflate these folks with the likes of Puck and even Emeril. That's doing a major disservice to real chefs, even those that became TV chefs and made a few bucks.

    18 Replies
      1. re: applehome

        "...there was real data to be mined, real technique to be learned - real deliciousness to be made and understood...."


        The current cultural penchant for reality TV, the cheering for celebrity Cooks, and the acceptance of Airheads in general as models for emulation holds very little data, technique, nor deliciousness.

        1. re: applehome

          Thanks hit it right on the head. I think it's sad that someone like RR is so damn popular. The food she turns out is crap to say the least. If I wanted a meal in 30 minutes i would just order some Thai food. I like to take my time when I cook. The more prep the better. It gives me & my kids time to talk.
          Even when I come home from work after 12 hours(and I work in a kitchen) I can whip something up in about 60 -90 min & not feel like I cheated myself.

          I know you RR lovers or toleraters can say "well then just ignore her"..but how can I when she's all over like a bad heat rash.

          1. re: sugarbuzz

            It's a sad state of affairs when you can't avoid Rachel Ray. Aside from a Dunkin Donuts commercial a few months ago I can't say I've seen her on TV in a very long time.

            1. re: ferret

              It's not the point that we can flip the channel when RR's irritating voice comes on. It's much more critical to understand that shows like hers displace quality shows. TVFN made a decision to go after the big bucks available in that market segment, and in doing so, they got rid of Bourdain, Moulton, Batali, and even Emeril to make room for these bobbling heads/tits no-nothings. The special relations they have with Flay keeps him on board, but doing mainly idiotic psuedo-competition shows, with little to show for his actual talents. All this junk displaces real chefs and real opportunities for us to learn. It's not that you can chose to turn off the junk, it's that the good stuff - the stuff we would keep watching, is gone.

              But to give them their due, they're refocusing somewhat on the need for real food information. With shows like Anne Burrell's, they are bringing back real chefs who are demonstrating real food techniques - not necessarily more advanced, but more delicious - like real Bolognese vs. 5-minute out of the can Marinara.

              In truth, all chefs, experienced or not, celebrity or not, shoot their wad at some point. There's just no reason to listen to Emeril, in his sixth season, reading off a script, how to make chinese food. His area of expertise expired long ago, and it was definitely time for him to go. TVFN ought to keep rotating new people in - but they ought to rotate in people that really know and understand their areas of expertise - not barely knowledgeable people who look good on camera.

              This latest penchant of theirs to bring in virtual amateurs is a complete disaster. No one wants to see someone making what you can already make, on TV - we get our validation from our families and friends. We need to grow - to expand our horizons - to see what else there is in the world.

              Why was it that PBS ended up with the Batali/Bassols/Paltrow series on the great foods of Spain? Was that amount of real food information just too hoity-toity for the TVFN marketplace? You get more real food information from one Batali-Bittman collaboration than watching 10 Sandra Dees, 20 Rachel Rays, and 100 Paula Deens - including her offspring. Oooh - let's send Paula Deen to Paris - I bet viewers will learn much more from that than some Joisey schmuck named Bourdain... I mean - who makes these decisions?

              Your original point about it's ok for chefs to chase a little celebrity-dom, is certainly true. Whether it's Coliccio on TC or Ruhlman on ICA, I think that real food folks ought to chase the limelight a little, and get themselves a few bucks as well as some press and recognition for their work. In fact, if you follow that train of thought, the more knowledgable and experienced chefs get in front of the camera, the better. When Julia had shown us everything she knew several times over, she started bringing on young chefs on her shows - people who could show a new way to do things, who had spent their lives becoming experts in their particular field. Remember Emeril doing a crab boil on Julia's show? TVFN ought to specialize in this sort of thing - bring on new young faces - not families and amateurs, but real chefs working all around the world. What do we get instead? Rachel Ray. Why, exactly, shouldn't we be pissed off?

              1. re: applehome

                Boy would I love to see CHOW interview a FN executive. Then maybe we could stop guessing, stop bashing and learn a thing or two about how the FN folks really think.

                1. re: HillJ

                  I'd be really interested in getting these execs to recognize us as a greater part of their potential marketplace. With the thousands of hits this site gets per day, the interest in foodie level shows - instruction, entertainment, cultural presentations (travel), etc., has got to be a demographic that has some impact. Look how many people get into the conversations about Bourdain's shows. What do we talk about with TVFN - what a waste of Allen's talent his new show is? They've got to be able to do better than that. Yes - mediocrity sells, but what are we - chopped liver? Does it really take that much to develop shows that foodies might actually watch?

                  How about a young chefs show done in the vein of the old Great Chefs of ..., where one 30 minute show is dedicated to one chef. I could create a list of a dozen chefs myself - I'm sure that this list is almost endless.

                  Or another version might be Emeril and Friends - where he's the master and he brings in the young top guns, the way Julia brought him in.

                  ICA has an all-around following. How about another Japanese TV import - Dotch (Which). We've had Chicago deep dish vs. NYC pizza ad nauseam. How about Omakase: Nobu vs. Morimoto? BBQ: Low Country whole pig vs. Memphis ribs. Steak: Peter Luger dry-aged vs. Mishima. NO po boy vs. philly cheese steak. Spiny Lobster vs. Homard. A three-way- Cutlets: Katsu vs. Schnitzel vs.Scaloppine... And this isn't like Showdown, with one chef making up stuff as he goes - it's always two experts, with years of tradition and cooking experience, going up against each other - with a fixed panel of "experts" being the judges. It doesn't have to be made into a circus like the Japanese version - just well edited with lots of background info to set up the match.

                  You don't have to totally get rid of the Rachel Rays and Marc Summers Productions - but given that they have so many repeats anyway, why couldn't they go into some new territory? Food is a big tent - TVFN, the only dedicated food channel, ought to try and represent more than just the star-struck housewife without a clue market.

                  The biggest TVFN problem is that they believe in this cult of personality. They think that people want to watch because of Guy Fiori, not because of the diners and the great food he gets in them. How do we convince them how wrong they are?

                  1. re: applehome

                    <How do we convince them how wrong they are?>

                    Start by sharing your detailed and thoughtful perspective with FN directly. You have a strong statement to make-why not share it with the FN exec's?

                    1. re: HillJ

                      How many of you work in the manufacturing sector? How many of you have management levels being innundated with professional managers rather than people who started out in manufacturing or engineering?

                      This is how you need to communicate with the FN execs. These are not people who are passionate about food. They don't even like food for all I know. They are passionate about money, but they are most passionate about how making money for the FN with give themselves the leverage to move up the food chain. So quality of the programming doesn't matter, we don't matter because we are a small niche audience. What matters is maximizing profits at a minimal investment in talent, that is how these MBA types get ahead. Never mind the future, or the legacy, or the goose that laid the golden egg.

                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        I understand that - what I contend with is the assumption that we're a small niche. We're an extremely enthusiastic niche that will put in 10x the money that the average person does into finding deliciousness. We're worth 10 of them (from a foodie $$$ perspective - not a human value one). Someone that advertises the kinds of things we're interested in on a show that we would watch will reap much higher returns - selling us foodstuff is not a cold call.

                        1. re: Phaedrus

                          Oh please, an MBA thing?

                          You have the data to support that conclusion or is that a non-MBA's wet finger in the air.

                      2. re: applehome

                        Well said. Liked the line about the "star struck house wife market". Very true about the cult of personality. How many times did they say that personality is the most important thing during NFNS? I wish I could find the quote but some FN exact said NFNS is better than Top Chef because on NFNS it is all about the food. Clearly they are out of touch with their viewers(former) as well as their own shows. We don't need the same people on all the time on seemingly every show.

                        FN has clearly found something that worked at some point but seems to have run it's course. Do we really need more cake decorating competitions? NO. But they seem to be on all the time. I know people who love FN and those the hate it with a passion. I don't know (or even heard of) anyone who finds Paula's Party the least bit entertaining or even watchable. I do know lots of people who have lost respect for the woman as a result of the show. Yet FN is out there promoting the show when they should be canceling it and burning the tapes. Talking o FN wont do any good they have their own agenda and they are sticking to it.

                        This is a completely unscientific observation but during the finale of NFNS. I was really surprised and the network presidents appearance. Here it is the grand finale of the highest rate series ever on FN and she shows up as this slobbish, frumpy woman who looked as if she had just been on an all night bus ride. I would have thought that as the head of the network she would have taken some pride in her appearance. Apparently not. It was like she didn't care. The same can be said about her attitude toward the network and it's viewers. 'Can't be bothered to change.'

                        1. re: Withnail42

                          'Can't be bothered to change.' -- But they DID change!!!! Not for the better, in most of our eyes, but they DID change.

                          Some recent media trade articles I've seen say that their overall ratings are up in the last year or so. Executives are paid to keep stock prices rising, not necessarily to follow a specific taste-level direction if the two don't coincide. The only way to get the network to raise the quality of their programing is for them to believe it will lead to bigger audiences and equal higher ad revenue. Apparently the earlier formula wasn't good enough. Sad, but not all that surprising. Quality is a relative thing in business. It's not like Sandra Lee's recipes are sending people to the hospital (though they do make some of us sick).

                          Seems to me that Scripps has tried to use Fine Living as it's higher-end programming outlet and Food Network has migrated to the mass market. You could argue that they haven't done that great a job on Fine Living, but it does seem aimed at a higher plain.

                        2. re: applehome

                          Apple,I loved your original post, but I thought I was the only Chowhound who missed the "Great Chefs" series. Id love to see more shows in the vein of what PBS offers and fewer of the cleavage queens and product placement shows.

                          Frankly I'm amazed that Chow management hasn't removed this post for strong emotions but thank whoever they haven't.

                  2. re: sugarbuzz

                    I'm not a huge fan of RR, but I have made some of her recipes and they've turned out well. Would I rather see some of the shows that I really enjoyed, such as Sara Moulton, Emeril (not the live show), Mario, etc.? Of course. I don't look to her as a source for great ideas etc., but if she encourages more people to learn to cook/cook at home, more power to her as far as I'm concerned. Not everyone aspires to be a great cook, or spend their leisure time cooking and shopping for food (as I seem to do), but just want to put decent meals on the table in a timely fashion for their families.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      I have a very hard time listening to RR, so I rarely watch anything she's on. Her voice just grates on my nerves too much. However, except for the times when I've seen her using "semi-homemade" shortcuts, her food looks ok to me. Interestingly (well to me), I also can't watch Sara Moulton for the same reason: just can't take the sound of her voice. I know Sara has much more legit cooking experience compared to Rachel, but I'm not really interested in shows that feature either of them. And I adore Bourdain in No Reservations, but I'm learning about cultures from him, not recipes or cooking techniques.

                      1. re: MMRuth

               actually made her recipes?

                        I'm sorry, you should really see my face right now...

                        1. re: AngelSanctuary

                          Yes, I tried a couple of them and they were quick, easy and tasted good.

                  3. It's rather simple, really............... H.L. Mencken said it back in the 1920's or so:
                    “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” Catering to 'average' tastes makes sense, since the average is, by definition, the largest mass of the population.

                    1 Reply
                    1. Maybe its my non profit background showing, but I always seek out a mission statement and here is FN's:

                      They strive to be MORE than a food network...
                      and THEY have succeeded (wink).

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: HillJ

                        Unrelated, but I was wondering if there's a relationship between Scripps and Discovery - seeing as how both Emeril (from TVFN) and Ed Begley (from HGTV) are now on Planet Green, a Discovery product. All this corporate for-the-shareholders stuff just seems antithetical to the advancement of information for information's sake - or deliciousness for its own sake. But hey - we're entertained, right?

                        It just feels nefarious - people making big bucks manipulating what Americans should be thinking of as deliciousness, providing only the information they see fit to provide that meet their requirement$. Would it be a big surprise if we found hidden documents, many years form now, that showed Cargill, Nabisco, and General Foods (and maybe even the USDA) having a meeting in a little room somewhere and coming up with this plan of buying out a small foodie cable channel, and... (hey, was this in Wall E?)

                        1. re: applehome

                          appleh, when you launch the Deliciousness Channel there will be an what are you waiting for!

                      2. @ferret I am not a fan of RR either but i do find it DISGUSTING for people to project their insecurities on to her success. She admits she is not a chef but if she can help families make a decent and/or healthy meal for a few bucks then that is great. She is not selling herself as anything but a personality and an entertainer in the food industry so I think people should save up their anger and critique for things that REALLY matter. In the state of our economy, no matter how annoying and mind numbing she is, she is helping some families out.
                        I do not think your OP was lumping RR with real chefs (like people implied). Nice work to everyone who can get it in an honest living.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: jacquelines

                          Disgusting seems appropriate - we're all disgusted and disgusting about something, I suppose. Projecting insecurities on to her success? That's a bit of a stretch, don't you think? How do you get "projecting insecurities" from not liking a person, or what she does on TV or even her voice? This is a food site, just what the heck does the state of our economy have to do with liking or disliking a TV food celebrity? Do you think people liked RR before the current recession?

                          Hey - if you like her, you like her. Write a post that says I love Rachel Ray and make sure you don't project any of your insecurities "on to her success".

                          Rachel Ray, like it or not, is a symbol - a symptom, if you will, of the disease that TVFN has become. Since so many of us thought TVFN used to be so much better, she has become the focus of a lot of vehemence - more than she deserves, but far less than Scripps deserves for doing the things they did.

                          BTW - has anyone noted that your handle is close to our dear den mother. It threw me for a bit - not necessarily a big deal.

                          1. re: jacquelines

                            The problem is her food is not decent...they are fattening and monotonous. They take more than 30 minutes to make, she consistently give out inaccurate info on her show.

                            You know what helps out families, if you give them money, I mean she just made 17 million this year for doing absolutely nothing.

                            1. re: AngelSanctuary

                              "They take more than 30 minutes to make, she consistently give out inaccurate info on her show."

                              Actually, I happened to watch a FN show that was "behind the scenes" at various FN shows, and, unless you think they were lying, she does cook the recipes in 30 minutes. That said, she also seems to have all the ingredients needed right at the front of her fridge or cupboard, whereas I'm always rummaging around in mine to find what I need.

                              Re your comment above - I'm not sure how you can opine on her food as "monotonous" if you've not tried any of the recipes.

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                I have a hard time believing onions fully caramelize in a three minute commercial break.

                                  1. re: invinotheresverde

                                    I think it's the onion elves... miraculous work... They also ticken sauces..

                            2. Man I miss Mary Sue and Susan!