Contestants are told from the beginning that they have to sell a concept, and it has to be pretty specific: sandwiches, cheap dinners … or, you know, yelling in shorts. It’s nowhere near enough to be a good cook, or a great cook, or a great teacher. The specific objective, as it’s explained over and over again, is to create a sense of constructed familiarity that will get viewers to like you, to invite you in, to listen to you, and to care what you say. You have to cook good food, but it’s enormously more important to look good on camera and to be engaging.
Hello I am Zin!
[rant] A few weeks ago in response to certain high-profile events in the foodfame world, Linda Moore of the NPR Blog analyzed Food Network Star. She got it right! You can read her entire article here.
All of the ridiculousness of Food Network Star and of Food Network in general can be traced to this root! Alton Brown even hinted as much (it is very worth following his Twitter feed because he does these post-it communiques which are sometimes very scathing! I do not know how he gets away with it!) when he explained why he is judging and commentating on all these contest shows but not doing Good Eats any more! Just like I am sad that Tim Gunn is still associated with Project Runway, I am sad Alton Brown is still associated with Food Network. This is a guy who was a perfectly good videographer and he went to culinary school, people, not a correspondence course or a two-week workshop, he went to a real culinary school for two years so he could make the tv show he had in mind. No shortcuts. Food Network is now all about shortcuts (I do not think it was at first). This makes me sad. But it makes people rich and in America that is what counts! [/rant]
And now our regularly scheduled recap!
Today is Product Pitch day! This is another of my favorite FNS episode types! I am always amazed at what contestants come up with. Remember the woman who mixed sugar and cayenne pepper and tried to convince everyone her Popcorn Seasoning was worth buying? This year is extra special because Russell will show us exactly the difference between Top Chef and Food Network Star! This episode IS Food Network!
A lot happens in several parts so pay attention because I am only going through the roster once and covering all the different rounds. First the contestants have one hour to make samples of two different “uniquely you” products for the Alton, Bobby, and Giada to taste. They will give “brutal feedback” (“Brutal,” reiterates Alton; he is really having fun with this Mean Old Grump persona!) and advise them to use one or the other as their product. Then they meet with a graphic designer to come up with packaging! Except the packaging is more or less a jar with a computer-printed label: Chad misjudges and Rodney overshoots the limits of reality! They will produce their product and have one minute to present to three corporate executives from Cereal Box, Blue Box, and Big Box (the Other Big Box Store) who will decide if their ideas are worth pursuing for the customer base. And then the judges decide who goes home! And no, nobody will see their product produced.
On Food Network Star, they make you talk about your family a lot. The attitude is that if you can’t tell a personal story about a recipe, there’s essentially no reason to make it on television, which is a pretty high bar as far as coming up with reasons why you totally care deeply about those turkey burgers.
The Best Three:
Stacey makes diary-free, gluten-free orange cardamom cookies since that is what she has to make for her son but they do not come out very good so she does what every good cook does when something is not working: She adds sugar! She also makes butterscotch but because she waited too long to add the cream it is too soupy so she melts more sugar to fix it. Maybe she can get the concession on diabetes medicine now! Bobby loves the story about her family (Stacey has this “family story” thing down, yes?) but Alton makes a face and Giada wants some water! The cookies are not good! Her Cayenne Butterscotch is better and Alton foresees a whole line of sauces! It is not a product unless it can be a mass market Empire! That is the FN way! Stacey meets with a graphic designer (“packaging represents brand promise” – you can not tell me she has not been coached) to come up with a 50s style Vintage Kitchen label for her Hot Mamma Butterscotch. She memorizes her script and gets lost when she misses a word! She gets giggly! But they wanted her to be less perfect so there it is! The corporations like the unexpected but delicious kick! They ask her why she would be the one, and she talks about the lineage of women in the kitchen since she learned to cook from her grandma and mom making her vintage but being a working mom she is modern. The corporations find her pitch polished but a little boring! See that is how Food Network Star is selling her to us! Even when she does a mediocre presentation she is polished but boring! Bobby criticizes the rehearsed quality (which is very accurate) and tells her to be more spontaneous. The judges like the product, they like the packaging, and she demonstrated her Vintage point of view but they want “more you.” But of course she is in the Top Three anyway! Except for her uncooked Pot Pie she has been in the top every week!
Russell does sweets! He says he has a product line but it is so small it is more like a hobby. Last week I predicted he would do bacon booze sugar butter jam but he does bacon candy with bourbon so that is like solid jam! He also makes ginger chili ice cream which sounds really good! “Come on give it to me” says Giada and I do not think she means ice cream. She loves his candy and Aton likes the ice cream but the bacon candy is unique so he goes with that. He designs a flying pig label. Hey we have When Pigs Fly bread in Maine and I like it better! He does a very good presentation! He talks about the food revolution to embrace sin which is the first time his revolution has made sense! They are laughing when he talks about the five sins in his Bacon Candy! “Come with me and Sin!” Everyone is happy! One of the Box people says it flies in the face of everything that is happening in Wellness (that is what a revolution is!) but so what, she owns lots of Big Pharm stock. They find him authentic and endearing (I am getting Puck from Glee these days) and his product is good but it does not come off as candy! Because when you say Candy to a Mass Market Box person it had better be chocolate or bright red or green sugar! On Top Chef they cook with salmon candy but the type of people who buy FN products would not understand bacon candy. That failure by the way is on the judges because they tasted the stuff and did not complain that it was not candy! Giada says it is the first time she has wanted to join him on his Food Revolution because he made it fun! I somehow do not see Giada chomping down on Bacon Candy very much!
Damaris talks to her peaches. They are pretty! She makes a grilled peach and chili pepper jam and a bourbon honey vinaigrette except Russell uses all the bourbon so she makes a whiskey honey vinaigrette. Alton wonders if her salad dressing has to be sold at a liquor store. It is very one-note. The jam is spicy but Bobby thinks that is who she is so she goes with the jam. She uses a raffia tie which makes sense. In her presentation she concentrates on channeling Stacey! She talks about the South being the best-kept culinary secret in the country. Since when is the South a culinary secret? She runs out of time! The Box People like the ginger in the jam and the labeling is exceptional! I do not know about that, I like idea but the colors do not have enough value contrast but now that I have seen all the products I realize they only had pink and grey ink to work with! Nobody explains what “BPG” means. They say she has a “reserved charm” and Alton thinks that is hilarious! Bobby is disappointed because they want her true personality. I love Food Network Star. She has given them her true personality week after week and they have told her to tone it down but now she tones it down and they want it back! Do they think we are idiots? Do they think we forget from week to week? Alton tells her she would have won if she had been less restrained because her product and packaging were great! Maybe she should have drunk the whiskey instead of putting it in the vinaigrette!
But if you’ve watched more than five minutes of Food Network Star, you know that they only care what’s in your heart to the extent it happens to be congruent with what people think is in your heart. You can be the nicest person on the planet, and if it’s not coming across, you’re out. It’s not about who you are, but about who you seem to be, because cooking is personal and touches people’s families in all the most constant and important ways, so, you know. You’d better be able to make the sale.
The not-best Four
Chad decides on baked beans because all you can get in a supermarket is canned beans! So he makes… canned beans! No, he will put them in a jar and that makes all the difference! Wait! B&M makes jarred beans! They are a Maine company (or they were before all the little fish got gobbled up by the big fish) and they used to have a plant so close we could smell it (it is a terrible name for a bean company though, yes?) so I can get jarred beans any time! He also makes dry rub. I was wrong last week! I guessed he would make barbecue sauce! Dry rub is almost barbecue sauce but not quite. His dry rub has 16 spices and some are secret. Alton likes his beans “a little” but Bobby tells him there are so many rubs already it is hard to differentiate (and Bobby has a few recipes himself) so Chad sticks with the “little bit good” jarred not canned baked beans. He tells the designer he wants a see-through jar so they can see the green peppers and onions and three types of beans! He calls them Big Boy’s Barbecue Beans. His presentation is good except they do not understand what makes them “Big Boy” and he explains it is more grown up than regular canned beans so it is the Big Boy version. The execs (all women) do not look convinced about the name (I think it is downright obscene) but they want to do Chad anyway. No, they are just “ready to taste.” The beans. They say it sounds appealing but if it is in a clear glass jar it had better look good and this looks more like sloppy joe mix. Bobby thinks it is too sweet. Bobby does not like the competition for Hot Grill Guy!
Rodney talks in catchphrases and sound bites that do not really make sense. No wonder they seem to love him! Food Network where Articulate is optional! He fell in love with pie when he was a little kid stuck in a room of pies. I would think that was weird if I did not think it was utter bullship. He makes two pie kits: spinach and goat cheese quiche, and mixed berry. Alton likes the quiche. Bobby warns him to tune down the Big Ideas because simple is better. Alton tells him to keep it simple when he pitches. Rodney says, “Screw that, I have ideas in my back pocket.” Just because you have ideas, that does not make them good ideas! The pie kit is in fact a good idea (I do not know if Rodney understands the Ikea Effect but a pie kit is a textbook application) but he turns it into a mess! He tells the graphic designer he wants a coat-hanger wire handle taped to the jar, and the dough wrapped around it like a rolled towel. Of course they can not produce such a thing so they literally have a coat hanger duct taped to a jar. It is truly horrible! Frightening! He does the same nonsense phraseology in his presentation then OH NO he brings out his guitar! Maybe he can actually play and sing in certain settings like when everyone is drunk and happy but this is the second time he has tried to perform on this show and he seems very amateurish to me! The Box people all get that he believes in pie but they do not know what the product is! His personality overshadows it! Alton tells him he had no focus and left them confused so even though the quiche was good it did not work! He tells them, “But I had a blast!” and Alton says “But no one will buy your pie kit” and, well, usually I prefer art to commerce but there was no art here so commerce would have been far preferable!
Nikki makes Nikki Dinki sauce. Now it is not her fault her name is Nikki Dinki but I am not sure saying it over and over is a good thing when lack of authority is her main note. She makes two pureed veggie sauces, one spinach eggplant and the other roasted pepper tomatillo. the spinach eggplant is predicatably ugly (it was brown so she tried to make it green which meant it was that lovely green/brown mothers of infants know so well) so she goes with the other. Even she does not like her product! The Box people ask her where it would be merchandized which seems like an odd question! In my supermarket there is an entire aisle for condiments and sauces. She guesses with tomato sauce. They think it is too chunky for a sauce. Giada liked her energy but they did not know what they were getting because saying “roasted pepper and tomatillo sauce” is not good enough and no one told her to make it a salsa (or a dip which is what I guessed she would make last week)! She still Lacks Authority because she does not have a supermarket layout in her head and, well, that is how they are selling her to us. I still think her POV is the best in the competition and whatever they do with her on this show I bet FN will have a Meat on the Side program within the next year!
Chris is worried because it is not easy to bottle passion for sharing food with other people! That is why he can not be the Next Food Network Star right there! Passion only counts if you have a Product easily summed up in a catchphrase! He makes sweet corn bisque and a smoked apple red pepper jam which is his childhood in a jar. The judges think the corn soup is too spicy; Giada frowns! She and Bobby like the jam but Alton says there is nothing jamlike about it because you can not put it on cake (excuse me: savory jams like onion, tomato, bacon, and pepper have been around a long time now) so they suggest he call it something more savory and he comes up with: Ketchup! I do not belive this! I guessed last week he would make ketchup! I really did! I was kidding but he actually made Ketchup! He is confident going into his presentation because he is a sales person! But because they have been yelling at him for being loud he shuts down completely! It is bizarre! He sounds like he is a bad actor reading for a cheap infomercial. The worst mistake though is that he says a percent of profits goes to charity which no no NO that is not what anyone wants to hear! They do not feel a connection with the pitch and what do you know, it turns out he left out the part about childhood in a jar and his uncle having an orchard and the biggest applewood smoker in Ohio. Bad move! He left out the good stuff! This is what they do to people! They tell them to be who they are, then tell them that is not good enough, then tell them they are not genuine! He has many problems but what they probably see most is a lack of a culinary point of view that can be conveyed in a title so they will twist him inside out until he fails while trying to please them.
It’s not being a bad person that gets you fired from Food Network, any more than it’s being a bad person that gets you kicked off their competition show. It’s being ineffective at making people want to hang out with you and watch you make food and tell stories.
I was sure Rodney would be out but no, Chris is out! That is what having a clear culinary point of view does for you!
In the aftermath Nikki feels like a child again! They make you lose what makes you You in the real world! Yes they do! I am not sure I know or like the You Nikki is in the real world but that is the technique they use! Rodney resolves to work more on presentation and less on tunes. I think that is a great idea! Chad is traumatized by his first trip to the Bottom!
Food Network is a sandcastle of manufactured intimacy, and your ability to convincingly maintain that intimacy is your most important job skill.
Do you know how to describe food? I mean how to really describe food? Can you make people taste the food through the screen? See, when I hear “grilled peach and chili pepper jam” I can taste it! I do not need someone to start in with words like “smoky” and “sweet” and “hot” because it is all there in the title! But it seems Food Network does not trust viewers to translate Sweet Corn Bisque into sensory imagination so they train people to talk in sensory adjectives! This is where Rodney will fall to pieces. He will say things like “pie in the sky” and “zen pie” and “live pie or die” and nobody will have any idea what kind of pie it is. Will he still inexplicably be safe? Will they arrange it so he has some kind of immunity?
Cooking TV is a personality-hawking business. They tell you that when you’re angling for the job.
Lovely and Chris have to make a dish “featuring potato chips as the star.”
Lovely wants to be creative and edgy and over the top so she makes salty sweet dessert with caramelized apples in rum sauce, a potato chip crumble, and mascarpone cream. She tells Robert Irvine it is sweet and sinful and it is a party in your mouth! He agrees it is a party in his mouth but he is not sure if the potato chip is the star.
Chris makes a potato chip bisque – wait, he is stuck on Bisque today! What makes a soup a bisque? “Bisque is currently used as a general term for a thick puréed or otherwise creamy soup that’s usually made with cream or crème fraîche. Traditionally, “bisque” refers to a complex shellfish soup that is classically made with lobster, crab or crawfish.” So I suppose if you puree potato chips in milk that qualifies * shrug *. It sounds terrible! Believe it or not there are recipes for potato chip soup but I think it is a little different from what Chris does. He adds smoked salmon and says it is a play on fish & chips which is cute but it still sounds awful! Robert finds it unusual, and very salty! That is because they used cheap potato chips! The better your potato chip the less salt it has because the chip itself is more flavorful!
So Lovely made delicious dessert that barely used the chips and Chris made a horrible mess but embraced the chips with both arms! Chris is out!
I can not argue with that! I think anyone who even considers pouring milk over potato chips and serving it should not be on a cooking show! But the thing is it could have worked and no one would have ever known it! I bet if someone like Grant Achatz played with the idea he could make something wonderful but it would take months to develop and hours to cook not 20 minutes! I would have made a soft-cheese-and-potato-chip stuffed tomato broiled with potato chip topping because I know those things can work in 20 minutes. The crumbling thing was obvious but if you have 20 minutes and no do-overs maybe obvious is best!