Cumberland Times-News

February 22, 2014

What’s missing in TV cooking shows? Lots

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— As if badmouthing cupcakes isn’t bad enough — I have to go on and say this: I think the plates of food that are winning so many of the prizes on the Food Channel are well — boring.

Half of them look like hash.

Because essentially they seem to amount to a bunch of little pieces or sometimes bigger pieces, which might have different colors, or predominant tastes, or go well together, or not go well together, but the impression you get when you look at many of these achievements is of a bunch of stuff cut up and tossed together with a sauce or two on the plate before you.

Presumably it tastes good.

Because, of course, and this is the supreme and total irony of Food Channel: All the fuss about food, and the decision making, and a lot of the high $10,000 stakes on several programs ultimately depend on — the taste of the food that you see before you.

And the viewer is absolutely unable to judge this.

For obvious reasons.

That is why time limits have taken on such a large role in the decision-making. In real life, chefs hardly ever have to go up against situations in which they will totally fail in their job if they don’t get the food out (not to mention neatly arranged on their plates) in the next 10 seconds! I have pointed this out before, but it needs more attention, I think. It is a hardly-ever-mentioned irony that whole programs of ambitious and hard-working, well, cooks, often come within a few seconds of failing in highly important public venues on television — just because they forgot to turn on the oven.

At least, I suppose they turn on on their own ovens. Come to think of it, I have never once seen one of them turn on his or her own oven. Are they really responsible for this, or are there huge numbers of backstage blokes who are responsible for all those little jobs that might be demeaning if you actually saw the famous chef lowering him/herself to do it?

As far as the hash thing is concerned, whatever happened to arranging plates with the meat, the starch (as they so ruthlessly call it on menus these days), and the vegetable, each allotted its own identifiable and dignified space on the plate? Nope. In 2014,“presentation” seems to imply a ragtag pile of anonymous pieces of food on the plate, glued together with at least two sauces. This “artistic” effect seems more important these days than taste. And that makes sense, since none of us viewers can taste the thing on the TV in front of us, appetizing as it may look. Or not.

But who was it that made the important decision that food is more appealing in little bits and pieces, connected with a sauce or two? It’s like everybody has false teeth these days and can’t handle a piece of meat on its own.

Then there is the badly-concealed superiority that professional chefs seem to feel toward home- grown cooks, who have not had the “advantage” of going to culinary school. It is certainly true that your average housewife or househusband who cooks for her/his family cannot chop vegetables as skillfully as your cooking school graduate. (I live for the day when one of those rapid-fire choppers takes off the end of his thumb showing off. I suspect it has already happened but they aren’t sharing the moment with us.)

It is interesting that this one area in which they excel happens to be the one skill that is absolutely necessary to produce the — hash effect. And one thing I know for sure is that there is much more waste in professional chefs’ preparation, since they usually do not seem to peel anything.They simply slice down vegetables and fruits at right angles, taking a good deal of tasty innocent pulp right along with the skin.

I heard that they say (or maybe just one said) that home cooks peel their vegetables and fruits “up in the air.” I gather this expression gets a lot of laughs. But I bet you an apple that there is nowhere near as much waste adhering to the peelings of a good home cook as there is to the peelings of the year’s No. 1 cooking school graduate.

And I notice that the pictures in the paper aren’t very pretty either. The other day a highly praised picture of a Leek, Bean, and Orange Salad with Walnut Cream looked on the page like a close-up of the inside of my garbage can.

In the end it may be that these professionals turn out a superior product. (If you like hash.) But how do I know for sure when, in the end, all I have to go on is a television picture, without a taste or a smell to its credit?

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.