Tag Archives: culinary entertainment

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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Farming as Spectator Sport

Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.

To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath,  farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will)  moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor,  and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria.  I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.

I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.

Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden”  (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in  the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless,  (I’d guess more like fifteen).

Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms.  Nor does farming involve around the clock guards  (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.

The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press,  urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.

With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden  to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban  Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.

Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.

It was probably Farmer Al,  a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s  pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed  could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food.  For a hefty fee  he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.

Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go  to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.

Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and  yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs.  It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.

I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.