Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Food Network vs.

Since you’re reading a food blog, there’s a reasonable chance that, like me, you watch food TV from time to time. I started years ago with Julia Child on PBS, and then watched Jacques Pépin, the Frugal Gourmet, and Justin Wilson. I learned a lot, and thought they were great fun (especially Justin).
When the Food Network (FN) appeared, I watched it whenever I was in a hotel (no cable at home; PBS came via antenna) and found it had competent chefs and was usually interesting, though I learned less. Their focus was on entertainment, not education.
While I was back in the US last month  (Aug. 2009), I discovered that it now seems dedicated mostly to good ol’ girls, “BAM!” and “food porn,” what Anthony Bourdain defines as “watching others do something that you’re not likely to actually do yourself.”

In the “good ol’ girl” category we now have two main contenders: Rachael Ray (
photo below) and Paula Deen (left).
Rachael Ray, cute as a bug, has had seven Food Network TV shows, a magazine, and is the author (perhaps loosely defined) of 18 cookbooks, of which the “seven most recent titles all were New York Times bestsellers.[1]” Her style is down-home, girl-next-door-competent and she has her own (trademarked) vocabulary.
“Yummy” is “Yum-o” (a branding “trademark” expression; among Ray’s kitchen products is a “Yum-o” T-shirt), “delicious” has become “de-lish,” and her ingredients are often personified, addressed in some form of the third-person butch: a red pepper is a “buddy,” meatballs are “guys,” a sandwich is “Sammy.” “What makes Rachael Ray so exciting to people,” [says the Food Network’s head of programming] “is that she speaks their language, shops at the same places they shop, and uses the same ingredients.” Ray wants to be just like us.” ….this wasn’t the History Channel—but, on the evidence, there was a surprisingly strong affinity between preparing food and talking baby talk. “TV Dinners: The rise of food television” [2]
While Rachael’s appeal is not solely culinary (though she doesn’t always dress like that) her Food Network colleague Paula Deen, (17 books, 1 magazine, 3 TV shows) is more cream puff than tart. She’s roly-poly, talks and cooks Southern (Ya'll), and has a free hand with the butter, bacon and fat. True to Southern tradition, she likes it fried. Some specialties include food porn classics like Paula's fried butter balls, bacon-wrapped fried mac & cheese,” and the bacon, doughnut, egg burger.”[3]
And she has a sense of humor:

Those donuts were there, and the hamburger was there, so I said, "What the heck are we using buns for when we've got these luscious donuts?” …but there’s a catch, she says "It's only one serving per lifetime." [4]
“The Ladies Brunch Burger” on a doughnut
“BAM!“ and ”Kick it up a notch!” are the omnipresent expressions of Emeril Lagasse, the king of FN. Emeril has three TV shows including Emeril Live (with an audience and house band 5 days a week), 11 restaurants, and 16 cookbooks[5].
Emiril, for years a real chef of one of America’s great restaurants, the Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, has been on FN since its beginning in 1993. In a category all by himself, Emiril’s Creole and Cajun cooking is rich in crawfish, chili and garlic (BAM!) and showmanship. He plays to the crowd, but is also a great cook: his “Cajun Jambalaya” is almost as good as mine :-) but replace “Emeril's Original Essence” with a mix of thyme, oregano, garlic powder and cayenne.
Overall however, FN has moved away from chefs (except for Emiril) and toward “talents”. As Bill Buford wrote in the New Yorker,
…the shows made now are full of exacting, intimate, amplified, and exaggerated beauties. (It’s not erotic, I can confirm—that’s not why it’s called food porn. It’s just unreal. You will never meet a Playmate of the Month; you will never eat the red, juicy tomato that you see on “Barefoot Contessa.”) But the main problem was the “talent.” The network had got “too chef-heavy,” [FN president Judy] Girard had told me... Chefs tend to do one kind of show—the scorned how-to, or “dump-and-stir,” as the network executives call it. “You need television talents. You can’t run a network with chefs,” Girard said, so authoritatively and matter-of-factly that I found myself agreeing with her. (Of course not! Who wants to watch a wizened old chef!)[6]

In ’05 I spent a week in a Bariloche hotel watching TV while recovering from a cold and discovered; the Latino foodie channel from Argentina. In contrast to FN, it is chef-heavy and reminds me of the PBS style of old. Its reining queen is Narda Lepes with 15 TV programs, past and current, including multi-show sequences on the cooking of Japan, London, Brazil, Morocco, Scandinavia, Greece, and Vietnam and Cambodia. She has one cookbook, Comer y Pasarla Bien’ (Eat and Enjoy) winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for cookbooks based on a TV program, and has a catering company in Buenos Aires.
Narda Lepes
Attractive but not a sex-bomb, her style is witty, down to earth and educational; actually a bit like Julia Child. And her shows are intelligent: the Gourmet Vietnam and Cambodia series is the best foodie-travel show I’ve seen; entertaining, respectful of the cuisines and their cooks, and free of the testosterone addled machismo of some (yes, you Anthony) who have traveled the same path.

Narda says:
In general I like homemade food. Even if it seems exotic because it is from a different place, as long as it is homemade that’s what I most like to eat. There are certain things within gourmet cuisine that I like, but not many. I like simple yet gourmet cuisine that focuses more on the products than on the presentation. First and foremost, I like to make food that tastes good. Whether it looks nice, is exotic, or rare is of secondary importance.[7]
There is no single Emeril-like king of ElGourmet, but there are a half-dozen or so interesting male chefs. Italian-Argentinean Donato de Santis' show, Villa della pasta has perhaps the most flair and showmanship; Venezuelan chef Sumito Estévez’s Puro Sumo and Máximo López May’s Máximo Clásico are among the most cosmopolitan; and the most unusual is Latin Ameirca’s best know chef, Francis Mallmann’s, Huente-Có (“Between Waters” in the Mapuche language).

There are also shows on bread, chocolate, vegetarian cooking, Asian cuisine, chefs, cooking utensils, and cooking basics, with styles ranging from unpretentious to chichi foams, froths and verticality.
Some of the obvious differences between the two channels are that ElGourmet:
  • has chefs, and many even wear chef’s coats.
  • has shows about wine.
  • has shows about regional Latin America cuisines: Columbia, Peru, Mexico, Chile.
  • has recipes using liver, kidneys, blood sausage, fish with heads.
  • shows people cutting up meat, boning chickens, filleting fish.
  • has no audience participation, house bands, cute fat ladies, or Iron Chefs.
  •        does not call everything “easy.”
  • is in Spanish—but it's good practice. You'll build vocabulary and can often figure out what’s going on from the pictures.
Why the difference? Whether from cause or effect, accident or design, the two have very different audience profiles—at least based on who looks at their US website.[8] ElGlourmet’s US web audience is substantially more female (74% compared to FN’s 62%), older (56% to 40% are 50+), less wealthy (75% make less that $60,000 compared to FN’s 42%), better educated (73% have college or grad school compared to FN’s 53%); and more Latino (duh), although audiences for both are majority “Caucasian.”

El US Web Audience Demographics

. US Web Audience Demographics

I suppose it is possible that ElGourmet has no hip consultants in marketing estratégico encouraging a dumb-down to draw younger, male, richer and less educated viewers, but other Latin American TV is as mindless and trendy as the US version; and cable is full of US fluff in translation. It also may be that the cable demographic in Latin America is more affluent and educated than its US counterpart so that there is a smaller Joe Sixpack demographic to aim at. Or, maybe, improbable as it seems, ElGourmet’s producers simply have better taste.
At any rate, it’s no contest, ElGourmet wins hands down--and is and another reason I’m glad I live in Chile.


Update: 2011

The Food Network has now gone all-entertainment-all-the-time.  On a recent trip to the states the only programs we seemed to get were "cupcake wars" (cupcake baking competition focusing on the competitors rather than the cakes), "Food network stars" (reality TV competition for who will be the next FN Star, complete with tears, anger,etc.)  and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (Guy with spiked hair eats big burgers, coast to coast). Food pron rules. continues to have mostly shows that teach cooking.  ¡Felicidades El Gourmet!

[1] Rachael Ray's Official Biography, Rachael Ray on line at
[2] Buford, Bill. 2006. TV Dinners: The rise of food television. The New Yorker, October 2, 2006, on line at
[3] Paula Deen Is Trying To Kill Us, Serious Eats on line at
[4] Paula Deen on Her Bacon, Doughnut, and Fried Egg Burger, A Hamburger Today, on line at
[5] For ex-pat FN fans, Emeril is in Chile via VTR cable: Emeril Green/Ecogastoronmia is on channel 63/Discovery Home and Health.
[6] Buford, Bill op cit.
[7] Ritten, Sanra. 2008 An Interview with Narda Lepes. The Argentine, on line at
[8] Is the web audience similar to the TV audience? It seems likely, but who knows. Are Latin American viewers like Americans? Ditto. Latin American audience data was unavailable. Data is from Food Network, Quantcast on line at and, Quantcast on line at


  1. The photo you posted of Rachael Ray may be ubiquitous on the Internet, but is clearly a photoshopped image.

  2. Hummmmm. You may be right, …but maybe not. The original seems to be from FHM on line ( who say:
    “In October 2003, she posed for FHM. She cited said shoot in a TV interview recently and you all melted our servers trying to find the evidence. Well, search no more, click the thumbnails below to reveal all.”
    The Photographer is said to be
    and there is another in which she is wearing the same outfit plus several in which she is in similar attire.

    And thanks for the comment; when I’m convinced it’s phony I’ll delete it.

    What do you think?



Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim