If you spend your time among food and television journalists, as I do, you may think that food television is over. It isn’t.
If you don’t happen to be one of the millions of people who love Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, then change the channel. There’s awesome food content elsewhere. Or turn off the big box and watch a food video on your phone. Have you not seen the gorgeously lush storytelling of Chef’s Table on Netflix? The complex kitchen grit of The Mind of a Chef on PBS? Or the irresistible fluff of Tastemade’s Snapchat channel, where I recently lingered on a clip showing how to make salted caramel brownies? There are so many diverse sources and platforms for distribution, and it's ever-growing.
“Having a bad day?” Snapchat host Dzung Duong beckons in a voice gentler than a golf commentator. “Well, I’ve got the ultimate comfort dessert for you.” Yes, please.
Instead of bemoaning the state of food television and pining for the good old days when James Beard, Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet, and Emeril ruled the “airwaves,” let’s acknowledge what’s actually happening: the golden age of food media is now. If James Beard was in his prime today, he’d be saltily trussing chickens on Viceland. He’d be a judge on Esquire Network’s Knife Fight. “Not only is it a golden age of food content in the United States, but it’s a golden age across the world because all of these platforms are global,” said Steven Kydd, a founder of Tastemade, a Santa Monica–based food video channel featured on Apple TV, Facebook, and other platforms. In December 2015 Tastemade’s videos reached more than 100 million unique viewers and had over a billion views. “And that is growing,” Kydd said.
It’s all growing. Over the past couple of years, as I traveled the country promoting my book on the history of Food Network, I heard the complaints about food television. “It’s a circus now,” a book buyer in Indianapolis griped.
I get it. There’s a bushel of food competition, yelling chefs, and weirdness like forcing a cook to make ice cream while wearing a dog cone around his neck. And it’s also true that Food Network, in its first ten years, delivered both entertainment and a kitchen education through the no-nonsense Sara Moulton, the erudite Mario Batali, the neighborly Ina Garten, and the rest. The revolution they ushered in has been fought and won. America knows what kale is, and a generation of Rachael Ray watchers has learned to fold the holding fingers away from the blade while slicing. Thank you, also, America’s Test Kitchen. Grazie, Lidia! You, too, Mr. Spurlock. Our food knowledge has been supersized. Now onward, people!
What’s out there now is smarter, deeper, and more worthy of a world that has come to understand that food is part of politics, love, art, health, life, and death. “We choose chefs who are not only great artists but who have a compelling story to tell and are great storytellers themselves,” said David Gelb, the creator of Chef’s Table, which just announced the production of another 16 episodes. “Each episode is its own documentary. It’s a character-driven story about a person with a vision who overcame the odds to realize it.”
In the old days, most food television was considered beneath serious restaurant chefs. But when I visited chef Rochelle Daniel’s kitchen at Cress on Oak Creek in Sedona, Arizona, her assistants were chatting about their favorite episodes of The Mind of a Chef. That show, with its deep dive into kitchen creativity, is the one on which Daniel yearns to be cast, not one of the many cooking competition programs. “I have big ideas,” she said, showing a prototype of a gnarled iron spiral contraption for smoking food at tables.
Some of Food Network’s recent shows star non-food celebrities like Trisha Yearwood and Valerie Bertinelli. Marc Summers, the producer of the long-running Restaurant Impossible, said that during a recent pitch meeting at Food Network, a programming executive asked, “Do you know any ’90s TV stars who can cook?”
Rather than ruining food television, this has left the field open for every other outlet. Streaming services like Amazon Prime and apps like Snapchat deliver more fertile feedback to programmers about audience engagement than old-style ratings do. “How long did people watch?” Kydd explained. “Did they share it? Did they screenshot the recipe at the end?” With this kind of granular information, programmers gain an understanding of what food-centric audiences want and can confidently produce even deeper content. It was only after Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi became a surprise hit on Netflix that the streaming service ordered Chef’s Table. “They had the data to support the idea that it would work,” Gelb said.
Dana Polan, a food-media scholar, noted that there is too much good—and bad—content out there to consume it all. “Even if you stay up and watch everything, you’re still going to miss something,” he said. So let me help. One episode of Vice’s F*ck, That’s Delicious takes rapper (and former chef) Action Bronson to Daniel in Manhattan, where chef Boulud prepares a pressed duck tableside. Bronson calls the roasted bird “the prettiest girl at the prom.”
On my laptop, I sneaked a look at a food-porny video in Tastemade’s Thirsty For... series, this one on affogato, the espresso, cream, and gelato treat. Hypnotized, watching chocolate shaved into little curls and amaretto cookies crushed, I nearly melted into a pool of hunger-lust during a close-up of the curls being whisked into whipping cream. An instruction flashed onscreen, “Continue to beat until you get what’s called stiff peaks.”
Oh, I love stiff peaks. Who doesn’t?
Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.
Allen Salkin is a journalist and the author of From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network. Find him on Twitter.