"There's a lot of really bad food television on right now," Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi said at last night's "Food on the Tube: How TV Shapes the Way We Think About Food" panel at the 92nd Street Y. (She, of course, declined to identify any "bad" shows by name, but she likely wasn't talking about her Nightline bit last night.) "Some of the guest judges who I deeply respect, and love, and often have lobbied for months and months and months to get on the show because I think it's important to have that sort of culinary gravitas, end up being incredibly boring," she admitted. Nope, she wouldn't name them, either.
Joining the dominant Lakshmi on the panel were New York Times Magazine’s food scribe Amanda Hesser, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, Kathleen Collins, author of Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Cooking Shows, and moderator Alexandra Leaf, a cookbook author and culinary historian. Highlights of their conversation are below.
The Role of Food Shows
Amanda Hesser: "I don’t know why with food and not with other topics this comes up again and again and again. You know, television is a form of entertainment, so I don’t know why we set ourselves up when watching a [food] show to be anything but entertained. I think if you learn something that’s another inclination to watch the show, great, but television is made to entertain."
"Michael Pollan is a wonderful journalist and writer, but I was just thinking that his [Times Magazine] piece on food television had a fundamental misunderstanding on the relationship between people cooking and food television. Nobody who watches football expects ... to exercise more."
Padma Lakshmi: “I kind of see my job as being your man on the street, or the viewer’s palate on TV. In that way, I guess, my job is a lot closer to Amanda’s [Hesser], which is almost like being a food writer. You can’t taste what I taste at home, and I feel like it’s my job to be as descriptive as possible.”
Favorite Food Shows
Charlie Trotter: "In the earlier stages, [Iron Chef] was more of a cartoon type of show.”
Lakshmi: "I liked it when it was more of a Bruce Lee special."
Trotter: "And now, they're allowed to use things like Buddha's hand. And you're like, 'Well, what the heck is a Buddha's hand?' It's not unlike watching CSI where you're learning about crime fighting."
Top Chef's Younger Audience
Lakshmi: "Lately, I’ve been to a lot of Bar Mitzvahs on the Upper East Side, and I never realized what a tween following Top Chef had. It’s such a nice surprise to me. It’s wonderful for all these 12- and 13-year-olds to come up to me and say, ‘We have quickfire competitions in my house and our mom gives us five ingredients and times us.’"
Trotter: "Maybe it’s because the girls want to be you and the boys want to date you."
Lakshmi: "If it means that they’re eating well, I don’t care."
What Food Shows Teach Us
Kathleen Collins: "There are so many different things that you can have access to when watching these different shows, one of them being a different world, but there’s also lifestyle and personae. The person that comes to my mind right now is Nigella Lawson. I am very much a big fan of Nigella; I love her shows. You know, you’re looking at her real kitchen, and the way she eats, and you’re just thinking, ‘I want to be her.’"