Food-truck battles and cupcake wars; little people crafting chocolate confections and five-star chefs forging masterpieces with ingredients from a vending machine; molecular gastronomists making scientific ideas edible and D-list celebs opening a restaurant.
To begin with, food shows were once largely limited to quiet PBS instructional fare — like how to calmly make a cheese souffle under Julia Child’s tutelage. While there are still plenty of series teaching viewers how to cook (there are now two channels devoted to food with the recent launch of the Cooking Channel, an edgy spin-off of the Food Network), in recent years a deluge of programming has shifted the genre toward full-fledged participation in the reality-TV era — from competitions between professionals (“Top Chef” has sliced and diced through nine seasons) to cook-offs between amateurs (“Hell’s Kitchen” is about to embark on its ninth season). There are culinary adventures, such as “No Reservations” and “Bizarre Foods.” And the dessert course is especially rich, with a raft of shows (more than a baker’s dozen!) — including “Ace of Cakes,” “Cake Boss,” “Last Cake Standing” and “Cupcake Wars.”
Just as culinary trends keep evolving, food on TV continues to venture into new formats. “Rocco’s Dinner Party,” airing on Bravo, is a hybrid food competition-talk show with chefs competing as host Rocco DiSpirito converses with celebrity dinner guests. And “The Chew” premieres in September; part of the new daytime fare replacing several soap operas on ABC’s daytime slate, it suggests that the network sees food as a genre of the future.
All of these culinary offerings have indelibly changed how we look at food, helping usher in a new generation of enthusiasts. “Almost everyone in America has ‘foodie’ on their to-do list,” said DiSpirito, a pioneer in modern food-TV as star of NBC’s reality series “The Restaurant” (based on his career as a restaurateur). “And almost everyone has a favorite chef now or a favorite ingredient or a favorite farmers market, and that is very different from when I started out cooking. I don’t think it’s simply a trend anymore.”
The evolution from the step-by-step format seen on “The Galloping Gourmet” and the original Food Network series seemed to move in a more entertainment-oriented direction when Food Network adapted “Iron Chef,” the Japanese culinary sensation, for American audiences in 2005. The high-intensity show helped spark a hunger for “foodtainment,” and it wasn’t long before other networks capitalized on it. Bravo built on the race-against-the-clock setup when it launched “Top Chef” in 2006.
All this has helped create a nation of foodies interested in foie gras and Wagyu beef tartare and sparking wet-aged versus dry-aged debates — knowledge often acquired from snippets seen on these shows.
“Food TV has just made fine dining so much more accessible for the everyday person,” said Betty Fraser, co-owner of L.A.-based Grub and a contestant on Season 2 of “Top Chef.” “To just turn on the TV — any time of day, on any channel — and be able to find out something about food, it’s remarkable. And it inspires people to cook, to learn more about the chef, the ingredients. … And there’s no degree (necessary) to be a foodie, so it works.”
Maybe not, but an increased awareness of culinary arts among young people (and career-changers) has ignited a steady rise in enrollment at culinary schools. From 2006 through 2010, Johnson & Wales University, which has campuses in Providence, R.I.; Miami, Denver and Charlotte, N.C., saw an increase of 40 percent in applications to all of their culinary arts as well as baking and pastry programs. Enrollment for the culinary program at the Art Institute of California-Los Angeles saw 18 percent growth from fall 2005 through fall 2010.
While all of this programming may be encouraging a new generation of epicures, not everyone is happy about the rise of foodtainment.
“I’m not a big fan of what food TV has become,” said Jason Perlow, who founded eGullet, a pioneering online discussion forum for food enthusiasts, and now runs the blog Off the Broiler. “Most everything now is about how to be a foodie quickly and not put any work into it. Don’t get me wrong, I think getting more people interested in food is great, but there’s a point where food culture spirals out of control.”
Examples of the unsavory overlap of food and reality TV might include DiSpirito appearing as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” Or Teresa Guidice (“Real Housewives of New Jersey”) releasing a cookbook called “Fabulicious!” Even has-been reality stars are trying to get in on the trend: Tabloid queen Heidi Montag and “Bachelor” alum Jake Pavelka are among those on VH1’s new series “Famous Food” competing to launch an L.A. restaurant.
“It’s foodie chaos right now,” noted Saveur magazine Editor in Chief (and “Top Chef Masters” judge) James Oseland.
And there’s no end in sight for the gluttony. But some chefs, like DiSpirito, don’t consider it such a bad thing.
“It’s not brain surgery,” DiSpirito said. “We’re not saving lives here. We are trying to inspire people to be creative in the kitchen. What’s so wrong with that?”