Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bizarro Food Network

Something is rotten in the state of the Food Network.

Of course, that's to be expected. For once, though, the rot is a metaphorical one, and not Sandra Lee's latest culinary abortion.

This is the channel that replaced Sara Moulton with a second daily dose of Rachael Ray and cut Molto Mario to free up airtime for Semi-Homemade Cooking. This is the channel that ran a supposed culinary competition in which the contestants grilled steak and poured nacho cheese onto store-bought tortilla chips, then made the bold-faced lie that it was "all about the food." This is the channel that brought us "BAM!", "Yumm-o!", and "EVOO," and realized that, unlike ambition, mediocrity wouldn't slip through the Cheeto-stained fingers of its target demographic, the despised "home cook."

Apparently, though, there exists a melancholy executive. A man or woman who, on a late, moonless night on the battlements above the Food Network cubicles, was visited by the vengeful spectre of Julia Child, and has chosen to suffer the slings and arrows of Bob and Suz.
There is no other explanation for The Next Iron Chef, which premieres a week from today and, miraculously, looks watchable. And I don't just mean watchable in the sense of The Next Food Network Star, a cynically honest behind-the-scenes look which demanded attention as would a train wreck. For the first time in a long while, it looks like there may be a Food Network show that is really about the food (and, of course, overwrought Japan-inspired spectacle, a must in our post-Godzilla culinary world).

First, as host, we have Alton Brown, whose likability and geek appeal have somehow managed to save him from the Coalition replacing him with a large-breasted "personality" like Ingrid Hoffman. The judges look good, too. We have Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton, restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, and, best of all, classically trained author and blogger Michael Ruhlman. Not only did he help write The French Laundry Cookbook, but he's also a Bourdain associate and all around ne'er-do-well.

Of course, none of this matters if the contestants suck. Apparently, though, Food Network still has enough clout--or offers enough publicity--to draw some serious talent and, in a novel twist, has elected to choose contestants who can actually cook. My jaw dropped when I read the list. After the network's history of abusing real chefs, it's a stable far better than the network deserves.

There's Gavin Kaysen, formerly of the Michelin-starred L'Escargot in London, now of El Bizcocho (I'm there in a few months when the temperature here is twenty below -- my sister lives in San Diego).

Aarón Sanchez of Paladar and Centrico in New York, son of Mexican culinary authority Zarela Martinez.

Michael Symon of Lola in Cleveland. A Beard nominee who's been featured in Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Saveur.

There's John Besh of Restaurant August, a CIA graduate who's been praised by Gourmet, Food & Wine, and the Zagat guide. 2006 Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast.

Jill Davie, another CIA grad -- Charlie Trotter's and Tru in Chicago, Josie in LA.

Chris Cosentino, alum of Red Sage and Chez Panisse.

There's Traci fucking des Jardins. San Francisco Magazine's "Chef of the Year." Food & Wine "Best New Chef." Two Beard Awards. Rubicon. Jardinière. She's headed kitchens in restaurants that Sandra Lee couldn't pronounce if they were printed on the back of a flavoring packet.

(Okay, so I've never heard of Morou Ouattara, but in this company I'll give the guy the benefit of the doubt.)

Will Food Network manage to screw this up, too? Will we be allowed to actually watch our intrepid heroes cook? Will the Shakespearean finale result in a pile of corpses, the result of Guy Fieri's tater tots and Sandra Lee's supposed Steak Diane?

Heck, they might even draw a few foodies. After all, they had the sense to wait until the conclusion of Top Chef.

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