By Phil Dzikiy
It seems like so long ago, perhaps because it was. Food didn’t always have such a presence in television programming.
Perhaps, it was Julia Child who introduced you to French cooking in your living room. Maybe a local chef had a show in your area. Eventually, some daytime television chefs started popping up. But there wasn’t that much else.
Now, of course, we’re living in the age of Food Network. If you ever want to watch anything food-related on TV, you’re in luck. And it’s not just the Food Network. Its sister channel, Fine Living, has plenty of food shows, as do competing channels like Bravo and the Travel Channel.
If it seems like these shows are slowly taking over cable, there’s a reason for it. Bravo’s “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” are two of the most popular programs on their respective channels.
The major networks have also gotten in on the act, to varying degrees of success. NBC has tried to get involved in both the business side of cooking with “The Restaurant” and a cooking competition, “The Chopping Block.” Neither show was a hit — “The Chopping Block” only lasted three episodes.
Fox, however, has had a better go of it, thanks to Gordon Ramsay. The chef’s “Hell’s Kitchen” completed its sixth season on the network last month and the show has already been renewed through the eighth season. The American version of Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” lasted for two seasons on the network and Fox has already signed a deal with Ramsay for another future show.
Shayna Raichilson-Zadok calls Ramsay “phenomenal.” A Buffalo native and caterer, Raichilson-Zadok was a contestant on the fourth season of “Hell’s Kitchen.” She currently writes a bi-monthly cooking column for the lifestyle section of the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal and Tonawanda News, and she’ll be teaching Tops cooking classes at a few of the supermarket’s locations next year.
Raichilson-Zadok has a lot of respect for Ramsay and said she’s “blessed” to have had the opportunity to work with him. And though “Hell’s Kitchen” has opened doors for her professionally, she doesn’t watch it anymore.
As for why that’s the case, she said, “You may love a restaurant and go there every day, but you go and work there, and you may never eat there again.”
Raichilson-Zadok said the original Japanese “Iron Chef” is her favorite food show ever, but she’s also a big fan of “Top Chef,” a Night & Day favorite. Part of the appeal, she says, is that “Top Chef” doesn’t talk down to the audience and the reality show drama is limited.
“I think ‘Top Chef’ in general, you can truly see the knowledge that the contestants have,” Raichilson-Zadok said. “They’re allowed to demonstrate that knowledge. ‘Top Chef’ is a true culinary competition. There’s no panel of your peers. That’s the bottom line.”
As for Ramsay, he’s part of a growing wave of “celebrity chefs,” an expected eventual byproduct of food television’s popularity and presence. Some of the contestants from cooking competitions have become minor celebrities in their own right, but some of the most famous “food personalities” out there include the likes of Paula Deen and Rachael Ray, for better or worse.
Ray has the “gift of gab,” according to Raichilson-Zadok. But “should she be on the same level of Wolfgang Puck? I don’t really think so.”
But the celebrity chef craze is, for the most part, deserved, she says.
“I think that it is an art ... it’s something that everybody does,” she says. “Everybody cooks. Whether it’s toast and ramen noodles or a five-course meal.”
Raichilson-Zadok’s only concern is that the truth about being a chef — the physically demanding work and pressure — may be lost on some people, who may get a “false sense of what the job truly entails.”
But one of the best developments in the rise of food television is the growing food education of America, Raichilson-Zadok said. Some shows are creating more “foodies,” but more than that, the public’s general knowledge of flavors and cooking terms and techniques is better than it was even a few years ago. Take, for instance, the mention of “zest,” as in a lemon’s outer rind.
“Five years ago, nobody knew what you were talking about,” Raichilson-Zadok said. Not anymore. “I think that’s great. Like every art, (cooking) should be accessible to people.”