With Thanksgiving around the corner, I've been daydreaming about all I have to be thankful for. That, and the dinner I will share with my family. Amid all of life's dramas and downturns, sharing a meal with friends and family is one of life's simplest pleasures. Whether part of a well-earned night on the town or a cozy meal of leftovers, dining should be a relaxing, enjoyable respite from the world's tiresome parade of bumptious distractors, callous colleagues and other inevitable irritants that seek to thwart our happiness. Meals offer a time to put differences aside, savor the food before us and quite simply enjoy the spirited company of those in our innermost circles. However, pop culture would have you believe otherwise, and it's infiltrating Cleveland's collective dining psyche.
A quick perusal of TV schedules and regional event programming suggests that food is among the world's greatest sources of conflict. Perhaps it's largely semantics, but the sentiment is disturbingly ubiquitous: food is war – and judgement is coming.
Today's chefs are subject to battles, wars, feuds, throwdowns; they're challenged, chopped and eliminated; they fight in an infernal kitchen. Worse still, all this happens outside their restaurants.
I miss the days when TV's popular food programming involved people like Julia Child inviting guests to share their culinary expertise and stories in a friendly studio kitchen. Instead, Food Network lets talented culinarians believe they are the subject of a special, only to ambush them with Bobby Flay, who demands a "throwdown", on camera. National exposure for mom-and-pop shops is great, but at what expense? Of course, there are still informative, less brash cooking programs (Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa, for example), though they rarely receive prime time placement – a response to audience demand.
Although it began as a decidedly eccentric Far East import, Iron Chef has become a fixture of America's pop culinary scene. By virtue of Michael Symon, it's become a local phenomenon. It's also set the stage for a blitzkrieg of similarly styled efforts.
Also on the Food Network, Chopped features former Queer Eye Ted Allen challenging four talented chefs to create cohesive dishes based on absurd ingredient pairings, in order to avoid being "chopped". The verdict is handed down by three judges. I'd rather watch those chefs prepare dishes that they are proud of, not witness the spectacle of the same rushed, nervous, sweating chefs trying to unite quahog, huitlacoche, white chocolate and kumquats.
On Fox's Hell's Kitchen, comically abrasive Gordon Ramsay leads an expletive-driven showcase of culinary ineptitude. It's a grade-A cooking show, if you enjoy culinary episodes that feature a British chef-cum-actor with a contrived temper and sensitive stomach that makes him prone to vomiting.
The specter of final judgement continues on Bravo's Top Chef, as some of the country's most talented chefs leave their posts, their staffs, their families and their restaurants, for a shot at questionable culinary glory (and advertiser-supplied prizes). There's no doubting the immense talents of (most) the featured chefs, but the show's recipe for entertainment is the unavoidable cock-ups that come with being endlessly subjected to taxing, timed elimination challenges. It's akin to Double Dare for chefs. I'd be interested to learn recipes from the chefs, and I can via Top Chef University for $24.95 per month. I wish that type of content was included with my cable bill.
Hometown hero and Cleveland promoter Symon leads another recent Food Network charge, turning lighthearted local food favoritism into nationally televised "feuds". Despite Symon's valiant efforts to present a "we're all winners" assessment, he is the final arbiter of culinary greatness, declaring a victor amid made-for-TV mobs of sign-toting supporters who represent restaurant rival factions. In the end, one establishment is better than the other. Nobody likes to finish in second place, especially when televised (in Summit County, for example), and when it could hurt business. I would have enjoyed watching Symon as he uncovers compelling stories about family-owned, long standing businesses – hold the judgement. Have we developed a culinary blood lust that finds us cheering before the gastronomic gallows?