I have had issues with food TV for a long time. From the ridiculously chipper Rachael Ray to the catch-phrase-ery of Emeril, the shrieking freak-outs on Hell's Kitchen and the glorification of every goddamn cheeseburger and burrito in America courtesy of Guy Fieri, the Food Network, Bravo, and seemingly half the broadcast and cable networks out there have labored hard to give to the American public a view of the cooks life that bears about as much relation to reality as Survivor does to an actual shipwreck situation. You know what happens in real reality when you find yourself stranded on a deserted island with a bunch of failed models and sociopathic exhibitionists? You get diarrhea from eating all the coconuts, poison yourself drinking jungle water, get mauled by wild boars, become best friends with a volleyball, turn to cannibalism and then die. Probably all within the first 24-hours.
Idiocy makes Alton cry
Honestly, working a night in an actual, professional kitchen is not always a lot different. But when's the last time you saw some poor, overworked line cook on the Food Network chopping off a finger because he's just in from his second job unloading trucks at Walmart and hasn't slept in three days? When's the last time that Mario Batali explained how it took him twenty years to learn how to make pasta, and that your chances of getting it after just thirty minutes of watching him in his show kitchen are about the same as you being able to walk the streets in a pair of blaze-orange Crocs without just getting punched in the face?
So with that in mind, I've begun to put together a list of all the stupid, ridiculous, ass-headed and wrong things that food television has tried to "teach" of over the years--a far-from-complete accounting of all the ways that televised instruction, quasi-reality and inane food competitions have served to make us dumber, weaker and less capable of handling ourselves around hot fat, knives and fire. I'll begin with the big one:
1. Anyone can be a chef!
No. You can't. Sorry, but it's the truth. I know that there's a massive industry out there (cooking schools and professional programs, equipment manufacturers, cookbook publishers and restaurants which couldn't exist without small armies of stagiers working for free) completely dedicated to convincing you otherwise, but I'm being honest with you: Not everyone can be a chef, and, honestly, most people shouldn't be. It takes a rare kind of creature to succeed in a business famous for killing the dreams of most who approach it and bankrupting all the rest. And the path that one must take is not one that most are willing to walk.
For starters, consider this: in order to work your way up to a position where you might be qualified to run the line in your neighborhood cafe, expect to spend the better part of a decade working 12-to-14-hour days and 100-hour weeks in a small, cramped space full of things that can cripple you being wielded by those who know how. Imagine standing for all that time. Imagine spending most of it being screamed at by superiors under inconceivable pressure to squeeze a nickel out of a two or three percent profit margin. Imagine learning two or three dozen or motions (not recipes, but motions--like dunking the frites or rolling the gnocchi--because you won't be anywhere near a finished plate for ages) and repeating them, a hundred times a night, for ten years.
If you want to be a cook you have to be young and strong and fast and pretty much indestructible. Don't be fat. Don't be weak. Don't be shy. Don't be old. You have to love the heat and the stress and the pressure and the low wages and the long hours and the close, personal company of some highly dodgy characters. It helps if you can hold your liquor. It helps if you speak a couple languages (Spanish is a good place to start, followed by gutter French and then maybe Hindi). It helps if you are not offended by a 24-hour locker room mentality and long stretches of grinding boredom punctuated by bright spikes of total panic. It helps a lot if you understand that you have to be a cook before you can be a chef. There are no shortcuts.
Well, okay. There's one. If you're really rich and really dumb you can ignore everything above, buy yourself a restaurant, staff it up and just call yourself a chef. It'll be fun for about a month, less fun the month after when the bills start coming due, way less fun for the next three as everything starts falling to pieces around you because you suddenly realize that you don't know how to bail your sous chef out of jail, fix an industrial dishwasher, navigate through the byzantine laws dealing with health inspections and trash removal, get a good price from the fish guy or handle a night when only three people come in for dinner. And then it's gonna be no fun at all when you've run through all your available cash, defaulted on your loans, had your last produce order refused, and the marshals are coming in to seize the ovens and all those pretty copper pans for the bankruptcy auction.
That auction is also where you might actually meet your first real chef. He'll be the one standing in the back with the grin on his face and the grill scars on his arms, picking up your barely used Friolators for ten cents on the dollar.
2. A great home cook is as good as any professional!
You know why Gordon Ramsay screams so much on Hell's Kitchen? Because that show is populated (mostly) by mouth-breathing idiots who can (maybe) grill a cheeseburger at home but have absolutely no business being in a professional kitchen--or even some televised facsimile thereof. Ramsay screams because his kitchen is staffed by normal people and normal people can't cook. At all. EVER.
Normal people are not accustomed to having to do everything perfectly all the time. A cook is. Normal people are not regularly screamed at by a foreigner with anger management issues. A cook is. Normal people do not expect to spend their mornings up to their elbows in blood, butchering chickens or breaking down steaks, then their nights banging out the same beef fucking wellington a billion times in a row for a billion unappreciative customers. To a cook, that's just a peaceful day at the office.
At every grunt level, professional cooking has nothing at all to do with great recipes, careful presentations or the gentle labor of delicate and artistic souls who love food in all its myriad splendors. It's just about moving product, quickly and accurately, and meshing well as part of a team. No home cook will ever be prepared for this, so do yourself a favor: stay home, whip up a nice paella for your family and thank god that you learned how to program computers or sell cosmetics or operate on people's brains rather than winding up in the kitchen. Being a cook and a chef is, without a doubt, the greatest job in the world. But it is not for people who suffer at having their illusions shattered.
3. Deep-frying your Thanksgiving turkey is a good idea!
Like cooking meth, deep-frying a turkey can be done by amateurs, but probably shouldn't be. In both cases, the odds of something exploding and lots of people getting hurt are very high, and the chance of the whole thing going off without a hitch and turning out perfectly is slim.
And yet every year around this time, you just can't turn on the damn TV without some wheezing knucklehead in a wrinkled chef's coat going on the local news and telling everyone how "the big trend this year is deep-frying your turkey!"
I have to believe the men and women of the fire department just head right to the trucks whenever they see something like this on TV, not even bothering to wait for the alarm to go off.
4. Chefs have "secret methods" for making their food taste better than yours!
I guess this one is not totally untrue. I mean, chefs do have secrets that make their food taste better than yours. There are two of them. Want to know what they are?
Chefs add butter and salt to everything. If there was a way to add butter and salt to the air in the dining room, they'd do it.
Oh, and I guess there's probably one more secret--beyond, of course, the years they've spent living in a kitchen and dedicating their every waking moment to learning about, preparing and perfecting their food. That would be shallots. Shallots make everything better. If something needs onions, garlic or both, use shallots. You'll thank me later.
5. Baking can be easy!
This is a lie. Baking is not easy. Ever. It might look that way on TV, but do you know why? Because Rachael Ray or Paula Deen have expert bakers working for them. They're like ninjas, never seen, but always there, supplying their masters with all those beautiful muffins and breads and biscuits and what-not.
No amount of practice, no expensive tools, no fancy gadgets or secret formulas are going to make baking any easier. Bakers are not made, they're born. Half-scientists, half-cooks and 100% crazy, they are the friggin' Jedi Knights of the kitchen and what they do is pure magic. All bakers should have to wear wizard hats when they work and smaller wizard hats when they're walking around town so they can be recognized and set apart from regular mortals.
If you have trouble baking now, you're going to have trouble baking for the rest of your life. I suck as a baker. The only job I was ever flat-out fired from was when I was accidentally hired as a pastry chef by an owner who thought a chef and a baker were basically the same. They are not. And to this day, I buy all my baked goods from those who were born knowing how to make them.
6. A goofy haircut, a pair of sunglasses and a TV show is enough to make you a food expert!
7. Just a few new ingredients can spice up any classic dish!
No, what a "few new ingredients" that you're uncomfortable with using or maybe just discovered on an end-cap at the local Whole Foods will do is ruin the fuck out of your classic dish, make a disaster of your dinner party and drive your children right into the waiting arms of that creepy dude who wears the giant Burger King head in those commercials.
Perhaps the biggest sin of food television (after that whole "Anyone Can Be A Chef!" thing) is the notion that classic dishes need to be altered, deconstructed, fucked with or otherwise "spiced up." You know why coq au vin is a classic dish? Because it's really good and has been really good for generations without any smart ass coming along and jamming galangal root or lemongrass into it. Same thing with cassoulet. Same thing with a cheeseburger. Same thing with tamales.
Like the 24-hour news cycle demands a constant flood of "news" to feed the beast, so, too, does the explosion of food programming demand a commensurate explosion in stuff to talk about. Every day, these poor hosts need to find something else to get all inordinately excited over, and once they've exhausted all the normal dishes in the half-dozen or so canons which television viewers find acceptable (French, Italian, American, Chinese, Mexican and Eastern European, arguably Vietnamese and Thai and Indian, but never anything from South America or Africa, from Eastern European countries that aren't close to Germany or anything Middle Eastern that doesn't involve chickpeas), they have to do something.
So what they do is add ginger to the salsa or Guatemalan insanity pepper to the soup or tamarind to a beef pot pie and call it, "a bold new trick that your family is going to love!" even though, in most cases, your family wasn't all that crazy about the beef pot pie in the first place and would rather eat nails than the "new and improved" version.
Classics are classics for a reason. And while I am all for experimentation in the kitchen, the idea of just dropping some totally inappropriate ingredient into a traditional recipe for the sake of making another half-hour of TV drives me up a wall.