As we're seeing right now with Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef, as we saw earlier this year with Iron Chef Masters and as we can see 24/7 up and down the TV dial, restaurants and food have reached a level of media prominence never seen before.
Yet foodservice pros don't spend much time pondering why there are so many food shows on TV and where they all came from. Instead, they want to know how to get on them.
But Kathleen Collins did wonder how food shows have come to dominate the airwaves. The result is Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (Continuum, $24.95). If your goal, too, is to gain TV exposure for yourself and your restaurant, her book can give you insight into where cooking shows came from and, more importantly, what makes the good ones tick.
Collins begins with the shows that appeared on boxy black-and-white TV sets post-World War II. They were typically hosted by home economists whose mission was to help housewives function better in the home kitchen. The book then follows the evolution of the genre through the years of Julia Child and the many other chefs who had shows on PBS — you may have forgotten how many there were — winding up in the Martha Stewart/Rachel Ray/Food Network era that took hold in the mid- to late 1990s and continues today.
As a result, this well-researched (Collins is a librarian by trade) 278-page book covers a vast swath of American cultural history. But a few dominant themes emerge. Here's one aspiring TV chefs should note: Collins writes that “As the role of food changed from mere necessity to a means of self-expression, the nature of cooking shows has shifted from didactic to entertaining.”
Collins isn't afraid to ask some hard questions, either. Among them: How long can cooking shows last? When television first started, Westerns dominated the ratings and cooking shows were stuck in lousy time slots and aimed at a fringe audience. Today, something like Next Iron Chef is a prime time blockbuster and multimedia extravaganza. Could it be that “such a frivolous pursuit as food television might lose its audience?” she asks.
We hope it doesn't, and we know a lot of RH readers feel that way, too. TV cooking shows do more than provide a route to celebrity for a few. They also stir up continuing interest in the type of food served at full-service restaurants. These shows have already been on the air for 60-plus years. As long as people still get hungry and still want to be entertained, they're not going to go away.