Yo! Em-TV Cooks

The smell of testosterone fills TV cooking-show kitchens.

2001 WAS NOT a great year, but it had its sprinkling of tiny points of light. One I cling to above all others for solace: Emeril was canceled after just eight episodes. What might be called the Emeril Phenomenon, however, is still very much with us. The laughless sitcom cooked up by Clinton buddies Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason for NBC may be gone, but its central figure, real-life New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse, relentlessly continues to "kick it up another notch" on the Food Network's Emeril Live. Emeril Live only airs twice a day, but there are so many Emeril wanna-bes— I like to think of them as Emeroids—that the Food Network might as well be called Em-TV. None so far has topped Lagasse in sheer noise, but it's not for lack of trying. If the trend continues, soon no cooking show will be complete without incessantly flaming saut頰ans, a live band, a demonstratively adulatory studio audience, and a host given to punching the air and running victory laps round the studio when a sauce turns out well. (Imagine Julia Child—no, on second thought, don't.) A few women still host TV cooking shows, mostly in the not-ready-for-prime-time crannies of public television. But these days the essential ingredient for success in the field, inescapable as MSG in processed food, is testosterone. Guys rule the Food Network grid, and the more Guy the better. Lots of "yo!"s and constant "dese" and dose" delivered in an ostentatiously working-class Northeast accent are not required but may soon be: Next to Emeril and Food Nation's Bobby Flay, poor Wolfgang Puck sounds like a wuss, and his Austrian-accented attempts to butch it up and banter with the audience just make matters worse. Public TV still offers airtime to the likes of Joanne Weir, whose Cooking in the Wine Country is an oasis of calm in a jungle echoing with the hollow thump of hairy beaten chests. But PBS also offers, just down California state Route 128, Michael Chiarello's Napa, whose eponymous host is about as yo! as you can get without actually making a guest appearance on The Sopranos. KCTS, belatedly as usual, is making its contribution to the supermale comeback in the kitchen with Nick Stellino's Family Kitchen. Recipewise, Sicilian-born Stellino offers up some of the more appetizing and practical food on culinary TV. But as we all know, the TV camera has an enlarging and vulgarizing effect on both the person and personality. In private life, Stellino may be a prince among men; on TV, he recalls to mind the chef/ owner of an Italian bistro I once knew who spent more time in the dining room than the kitchen, talking incessantly and looking down women's blouses. EVEN WHEN COOKING show hosts aren't sweating bullets to project maleness, the atmosphere of the show often plays it up anyway. The Naked Chef's Jamie Oliver doesn't look or act like Alley Oop, but the show's producers clearly think that his boyish charm is more important to viewers than his culinary skills, and Oliver delivers what the producers want. Food 911's Tyler Florence is refreshingly unaggressive himself, but the show casts him in the role of culinary Lone Ranger, bringing law and order to provincial women's kitchens. The most annoying thing about the whole trend of showbiz macho in the kitchen is that many of the chefs so positioned would be a joy to watch and learn from if you weren't being distracted by the whoop-de-do their producers come up with to "kick it up another notch." Lagasse, when you can see him through the flames of burning brandy and gouts of steam, is a fine kitchen technician. Puck's show would have a lot to offer if the man were allowed to concentrate on his stripped-down version of classic Continental cuisine instead of reading "spontaneous" backchat from a TelePrompTer. If you want to see just how dismal an effect producers can have on a chef's presentation, look no further than the sad case of Seattle's own Mario Batali, owner of several of New York's finest restaurants and such a master of kitchen technique that watching him mince a clove of garlic is sustenance for the soul. Batali's first venture into TV cookery, called Molto Mario, was minimalist by contemporary standards: just Batali, three "guests" (usually employees or friends), and an Italian regional or seasonal meal. Like most successful TV chefs, Batali is a born motormouth, but what came out of his mouth on Molto Mario was food and kitchen lore, spiced with the kind of good-humored, abusive banter that helps a chef keep the staff of a busy professional kitchen cheerful and operating at top efficiency. Well enough was not left alone. Batali's second show, Mario Eats Italy, though filmed on location, is totally without spontaneity: Batali's jive, mostly touristic factoids about scenery and history, is scripted, and sounds like it. What's more, Batali, a genuinely funny guy, has been saddled with a comic sidekick/traveling companion named Rooney who is not funny at all and takes all the fun out of Batali's own delivery. It's an unusual episode when Batali manages to ditch "the Roon'" and the guidebook chatter and just deal with food for five of the show's 23 minutes. A third season of MarioTV is in the works. Pray that cooler heads prevail. It is unlikely, however, that they will. One of the most egregious television programs ostensibly dealing with food is something called The Iron Chef, a kind of cross between Julia Child and Friends, Survivor, and a World Wrestling Federation match. Until now, people of goodwill and good taste could just regard the show, which pits chefs against each other and the clock in preparing several dishes based on a mystery ingredient, as the worst thing to come out of Japan since Hello Kitty. Now the U.S. has its own version, hosted by William Shatner. You can see it, while it lasts (cross your fingers), at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on channel 11. Be afraid. Be very afraid. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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