Category Archives: Food Trends

Food Fight TV – behind the scenes.

OMG. What a coincidence.  It’s Amazing. Two days after I post my VIP (who would have thunk it?) invitation to pay for the privilege of working as an extra on yet another televised kitchen-schlacht with celebrity chefs, tension and bad music, Chris Cosentino’s MAD Symposium presentation  goes viral. Cosentino recounts food show abuse and exploitation of chef- gladiators and the  judges who kick them off their island. It’s pretty grim. It includes endoscopic images of Cosentino’s tortured stomach. That’s ironic considering he launched the American fascination with offal, nose to tail, snout to ass cuisine.

I’m not crazy about television culinary competitions. The concept of chefs as competitors rings false, the voice overs are unnerving, and then there’s the music. If I were one of them and they played that the tracks during my prep, my final dish would be friend producer’s heart and liver with onions with a side of sound engineer’s ears. I wouldn’t hold out watching people I respect forced to down bowls of hot chile peppers. Side by side demonstrations – fine. White coated frenzy: disturbing, so I may be a bit biased, but it I do believe everything he says.

Cosentino is  not the only one to report odd practices on gladiator cooking shows. Here’s what I’ve been told by other chefs who have participated in one show or the other.

  •  Reality schmeality – much is staged, and real kitchens don’t work that way. There’s nothing exciting about chopping vegetables in a real kitchen. The gold standard is order, not adrenaline. The gold ring of reality TV is drama, not food. Gladiators vs lions. Bread and games.
  • Compensation is poor.  The lure is fame, possible money, exposure to people who will either eat at the restaurant and come there. That works for some. Not for others.
  • The contracts are restrictive and demanding. The producers  have attorneys and the contestants generally don’t.
  • The game is rigged. The winner is frequently per-determined according to my chef friends. They set the users up to fail by artificially creating insurmountable stress situations: shortening their prep time,  the food basket or the backup staff at the last minute.  When you see a chef blow  his top on a food show, it’s because he’s been set up to fail.
  • Contestants, even the losers, are committed to appear where and when the production desires for a long time following the show, which makes finding a regular job a challenge.

After a half year flirt with the show Restaurant Headhunter and a few dealings with production companies looking for talent, I have a few insights to add.

The producers and their minions don’t seem to know or care much about real kitchen reality. The only information on potential candidates they request is a head shot and a screen test. Whether they can cook is immaterial. .

They don’t seem to have the money you would think they do. I thought Hollywood was awash with the stuff. Apparently not. Maybe it’s all come up to Silicon valley to fund sharing sites. Pointing  out that I find talent for a living and thus would charge for the service generally results in stunned silence of stammering. I suspect the minions who call are unpaid star struck interns, but this being the age of the fourteen year CEO, who knows.

The Rival VIP invite to participate as an unpaid – nay paying – extra in a show with “celebrity” chefs (they asked a few candidates of mine who are definitely not celebrity, just chefs) through a Kickstarter campaign would suggest that Valley new billionaires are not throwing wads of cash at start up food shows.

Perhaps there have been too many. Perhaps the shows are going too far afield from the first one, Japan’s “Iron Chef”.  Too many games, too much circus, too little substance. But then, Iron Chef was created by the people who make Toyota. We make Chevy’s.

Never having been a fan of extreme competition I find the entire chef as gladiator / food as blood sport bizarre for a world where teamwork and camradery have long been the norm and respect the gold standard, but then the food component is has become another  vehicle for suspense and team partisanship: Who finds the treasure first, which sexy girl gets to bed the millionaire or which millionaire gets to bed the sexy girl, who stays on the island.  Chefs are glamorous, even the homely ones are gorgeous in white and everyone eats. Obviously “Top Chef” draws better than “Star Plumber” or “Celebrity  Mortician.

One of the strange impacts of the celebrity cooking contests was a rash of young people taking out large loans for cooking school with the intent of becoming TV chefs. Maybe that’s why nobody can find good cooks these days. I’m thinking, though, I think that things are changing.

Chefs I recently approached for a show I was asked to staff flatly refused.. They tell me they’ve been “warned”.. When I was considering Restaurant Headhunter, experienced food media people warned me: They don’t care about you. They will try to make you look bad, to trip you up. They will try to make the people you get involved look bad. Your reputation can’t  use that. Eventually the producers reached out to me again and asked me to provide candidates and a restaurant as a favor, as the more media appropriate “Head Hunter” they hired hired knew nobody in California and didn’t know how to recruit them.  Guess the answer.

And there is Jon Favreau’s non reality but very real movie, “Chef The Movie” , released earlier this year, which portrays the work of a chef as chef.  Favreau’s characters are so realistic, that’s I’d send them out to kitchen jobs in a heartbeat. I know the model for his first employer. I know his sous. I’ve met him a dozen times. Favreau’s knife work is as dramatic an act as I have ever seen. Without music. The passion monologue to his son – This is what I do, this is my passion – is inspiring. The movie, aside from the tiniest pinch of fantasy or two, is really reality restaurant media.

I have no doubt Favreau’s movie has made an impact. For the past decade or so I have had many, many aspiring culinary stars asking me what my media connections are. “I don’t want to work in a kitchen. I want to be on Television and have my own show.” . For the past six months, however,  I’ve had requests for information on owning a food truck. My friend Micah Martello went that route, and he tells me he hasn’t looked back.

Obviously food trucks are not the essence of cooking, but cooks are being inspired to work in kitchens,  rather than on stages. Media is always going to be part of any chef’s life, but the kind of dysfunctional circus my chef friends and Chris Cosentino describe is at least  being put in perspective.

As  Bud the Pieman says, “Make Pie, not War.” I like that.

Chris Cosentino suggests he’s worried about his future. I am not. He’s smarter than the people who used him and he’s got more class. As for the autism issue, join the club. At least half of kitchen people are autistic. In the right setting it’s a gift. Good luck to him, but he probably doesn’t need it.


 

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How to write food trends predictions (and why you shouldn’t bother reading them)

2011 is , and the one fail safe prediction that can be made about the crossroads of the food and media industries is that every media outlet and pundit is about to predict the trends for the coming year..

Bloggers, food shows, well paid consultancy firms and loose cannon freelance food writers alike will be punditting about our 2012 food and restaurant choices. They will name the next cupcake phenomenon, the new food, how restaurants will get your disposable income, celebrity nutritional  impact on the gourmet lemming masses, and where Alice Waters will plant her next turnip. For the most part they will be blowing sunshine up our snow suits, but we will listen anyway and possibly be complicit in making their predictions come true.

Oddly nobody ever says, “The Yummy Channel predicted that toasted sesame would replace chocolate, but I haven’t seen any at  whole foods yet. They must have been smoking the oregano again,”  and the general foodie public will be eagerly ingest another serving of food soothsaying in twelve months.

Take a look at Epicurious’s predictions for 2010:
Fried chicken was to replace burgers as the moving force in the casual side. Lamb was “the new pork”, pork being oh so 2009, and bacon would disappear from menus. Whoopie Pies were to be the new mini cupcakes (How many Whoopie Pie shops have sprung up in your mall). Butchers and homemade beer would be hot, while the drinking public would turn away from “mad scientist cocktails” and mixologists. Vancouver would replace Barcelona as culinary destiny (Next year Dallas will replace Paris) , potlucks were going to replace formal dinners as the hot social event, And Sam Kass (who?) would replace Curtis Stone (who?). Now honestly, Epicurious has set itself up as a knowledgeable resource, so how do they get away with this wing nut collection of wildly off center forecasts?

To be fair to Epicurious, the respected trade journal, Nation’s Restaurant News, hardly did any better, with only one home run prediction that honey would take on faddish proportions.

How do they get away with it?Here’s how.

1)      They make things up, probably after the office party. The sages predicting what you of the trend addicted masses will do with your disposable food dollars next year aren’t out for accuracy. They are out for entertainment. In other words, they make stuff up, so a lot of it is wrong. The staffer or intern set on the task knows that you won’t member any of it in a week, so why bother with research?

2)      The trending food fashions that do turn out to be right are hardly new, most of them already enjoying notable popularity and press coverage in the leading edges of the American food scene (San Francisco, New York, Chicago).   When Time Magazine correctly included foraging and salumi in  their 2011 trend predictions, the practices were already well entrenched in New York and San Francisco.  Rene Redzepi’s NOMA book tour had alerted the culinary Who’s Who of the value of weeds in fine dining, and Paul Bertoli’s decision to carry on his father’s salumi tradition at Fra Mani had long inspired a critical mass of chef salumi makers. The prediction was thus really, “these popular trends in the food Meccas will spread inland.”

3)      A substantial portion of trend prediction is really simply repetition of “street” and media noise, the selective rehashing of the constant exchange of information from the web and the last Meals on Wheels chatter.  With the right information it is possible to  make well educated guesses. This is the information advantage we expect from professionals in the food business. Unfortunately repeating does not necessarily indicate insight or research. It’s just more chatter. More unfortunate yet, there are plenty of PR firms and commodities boards paid well for creating and keeping such buzz alive – to make foods into trends.  Previous years’ predictions of a mass acceptance of pomegranate juice and functional foods like Activia Yoghurt are  highly suspect of processes which have little to do with news gathering.

4)      Self-fulfilling prophecies. If enough people read a claim and repeat it, it becomes truth. Journalism ain’t always what it used to be – it too frequently no longer reports but often predicts. You tell, tweet or share something predicted to enough of your friends, and it’s suddenly a fact rather than a prediction.  Cupcakes would have stayed a single storefront in New York, if the food press hadn’t obsessed about them.

5)      Citing past events as future trends. One of last year’s supposed trends was television stars starting food shows. One anorexic actress had a web site, and that, supposedly, would kick off an avalanche of women who don’t eat showing us how to cook. It didn’t. An event is not a trend. A trend happens when a food or style or ingredient finds a critical mass of followers, often mindless.  Gourmet hot dogs are a trend. Food carts are a trend. So is locovorism, although it is rapidly fading. (God bless locovores. More white truffles and Nero Diavolo for the rest of us.)

 

Knowing how to do it, let’s try a few of our own:
1) You will be seeing the resurgence of complex plates and finer dining establishments.
2) Restaurants will be offering more IPad and tablet based services including digital sommelier interfaces which allow candidates to pair menu items with a selection of the best suited wines without first speaking to a wine steward.
3) Waffles. Savory and sweet. Coming to every mall near you soon.
4) Cheese and ice cream gain recognition as healthy nutrition, starch becomes the bogeyman of the food chain.
5) Pop-ups<br/>6) Luxury knives become the ultimate kitchen status symbol.
7) Quick serve and fast food chains pimp their facilities to resemble fine dining.
8) Check payment by smart phone will become ubiquitous.
9) Exotic foods from India, Africa, the Middle East will spread in the main stream.
10) Justin Biber will have a cooking show.

These are, of course, the usual mixture of a little insight and a lot of pure  hooey. How did we choose them?

Nr 1: Street noise and a nascent blooming of some fancier restaurants. Actually a little insight, as a lot of the chefs I speak with are getting pretty tired of the Chez Panisse mantra and want to let out the throttle.

Nr 2: Already trending . Aps like Wine Valet http://yourwinevalet.com/interactive-wine-lists/  are in the pipeline.  Food dailies constantly report new adaptations of existing technology in established restaurants.<br/> Nr 3: is pure claptrap with slight factual basis.  Might happen. Might not. But you won’t remember it, so who cares?

Nr 4: A combination of noise and insight gained from recent research results claiming that starch may cause repeat breast cancer episodes and milk fat is less damaging to health than substitutes. May be influenced indirectly by industry spin.

Nr 5: Five star claptrap embellished with a good buzz word.  If anything pop ups are dying. They have been “in” so long they are a cliché. It’s a cheap and easy target, but  has no value as a prediction.

Nr  6: Self fulfilling prophecy and an unresearched educated guess based on  a June NYT article and some of the elegant offers recently pushed my way by various web sites.  That is, spin tainted. Remembering that the firms advertising luxury products frequently also pay for coverage (what?!! Paid mentions?? Who  knew??) the new luxury knife definitely has a fair chance of becoming the new Tickle Me Elmo of the kitchen ware consumer. If you read this and tell your friends, it will become a trend.

Nr 7:  Cheap and dirty conjecture based on the fact that. McD’s has opened a few locations with upscale designs. As McDonalds goes, so goes Fast Food in general. It it’s wrong, who cares.

Nr 8: More old news, and the prediction requires just a little more insight than breathing. Square, which allows businesses to take payment on their mobile phones, and aps which allow you to pay by yours are already here. Just out of the pipeline , they are being adapted at breakneck speed by small restaurant which couldn’t afford the standard credit card fees.  There is no way that this will not be a trend. Ergo, add it to the “no brainer” category

Nr 9:  More stale news combined with a wild guess. Now that San Francisco’s celebrated Iranian born Chef Hoss Zare http://zareflytrap.com/ has taken to promoting his heritage aggressively and Aziza http://aziza-sf.com/  has established itself as one of San Francisco’s top restaurants, you can expect imitators. India is a cheap add in, considering that there is a growing number of impressive young American born and trained Indian chefs ready to explore their culinary heritage. If they don’t do it now, they will soon. Africa? No clue. We’re after copy here, not truth.
Nr 10:  Don’t be ridiculous. Of course this is not a trend – it would be an event at best – but having a celebrity seems a requirement for any good trends list. It is pure  horse feathers.

To summarize:  Don’t look behind the curtain.  Or do. If you want to really enjoy culinary predictions, Google last year’s sure things on  your Ipad at your favorite watering hole, as your no longer hot mixologist pours you a no longer hip exotic drink. They offer some serious comedy.

By the way – there’s a rumor abroad that Tiki bars are back with a passion. Since it was on television, expect to see that one on all the lists.

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