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Food programming gets its just desserts

"Move your ass!" -- Hell's Kitchen chef/star Gordon Ramsay

The year: 1990. The setting: Stallings, NC. The players: My mother and I.

The actors enter a robin's egg blue living room. Great Chefs is on the television, hosted by a faceless woman with a voice tailor-made for introducing the next Gustav Mahler suite on public radio.

"Hmmmm... I wonder why they call them 'Julianne' potatoes..."

"I'm not sure, Ma. But man, do I love this show." (At this point, the whole of my cooking repertoire consisted of making bologna sandwiches, which I prepared with a self-assured, chef-like flourish after a friend's older brother taught me to first make four slits in the meat to make it fry flat.)

"There ought to be a whole channel just for food shows," I continued. "Just like MTV or ESPN." It was a great idea, I thought. I planned on sending a letter to Ted Turner, offering him my brainchild in exchange for a few bucks and some Atlanta Braves schwag.

"And who, pray tell, would watch it?," my mother asked.

Fade to the present...

Fifteen years later, and you have to tear my parents away from the television when Emeril Lagasse's cooking. A sort of Chef Tell on steroids, Lagasse has that magic ingredient, that "essence," that makes on-the-fence foodies tune in. Once the bellcow of the fledgling food network, Lagasse even scored a short-lived television sitcom based on his off-the-charts Q rating. How short-lived? Hothouse tomatoes live longer.

There's now a whole slew of TV programming with food as the central premise. And why not? Not all of us work in the police department, the emergency room, the law office or at the forensics lab. But we all eat, and most of us visit a restaurant at least once a week (special note here should be made of The Restaurant, a show featuring one Rocco DiSpirito, a man whose business acumen was matched only by his mediocre take on nuovo Italian cuisine).

Feeding into our never-ending desire to see people backstabbing each other to "follow their dream," Fox television brought us the wonderful Hell's Kitchen, which featured a motley crew of would-be Thomas Kellers battling it out under hotheaded chef Gordon Ramsay for the chance to own their very own restaurant. If you forgot this fact while watching the show, Fox, as is their wont, repeated it to us via voiceover every five minutes. Why would they put up with this verbal laceration from a man few of us even knew existed before the show's pilot? Why, Fox tells us (over and over) that he's one of England's Greatest Chefs. Er, if you say so. Ramsay also had a show back in England called Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (catchy name, that), wherein he revitalized failing restaurants where "the food's in order but the punters aren't queuing up outside the door." Translated, this means Ramsay rips failing restaurants a new one, and, thanks to exposure on the old telly, they experience a resurgence.

There's also FX's new Starved, a sort of sitcom with an eating problem. One character is a self-centered binge eater, one's bulimic, one's anorexic, and one's just plain morbidly obese. They often meet at an eating disorder group called Belt Tighteners, where they get berated (though not by Ramsay) for their failures, or else at a local restaurant. Creator/star Eric Schaeffer says he picked food as a main premise because he thought it was something that everything could identify with. And considering that shows about other things that we all do -- breathing, sleeping, defecating -- would be pretty boring and/or disgusting, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the new shows is Kitchen Confidential, a show based on chef and author Tony Bourdain's bestselling book of the same name. (You remember the one -- chefs cussing, sex in walk-in coolers, don't eat fish on Mondays. Mondays? Or was it Tuesdays? Shit.) The show features a swashbuckling chef named Jack Bourdain, and the show, like the book, purports to show the inner workings of the whole Glamorous Restaurant Life. The teaser commercials look good, and if Bourdain has anything to do with it beyond lending his name, I'd expect some wit and candor, along with a few belly laughs.

I'm troubled, however, by the recent references I've heard comparing the show to -- I'm not making this up! -- Sex and the City. Now don't get me wrong -- I've watched Sex and the City. I've seen every last episode, in fact. (There, I said it!) It's just that the shows I really love don't get compared to other shows. They stand on their own, as original creations (with the possible exception of The Flintstones, a direct swipe of The Honeymooners). And while Sex is a great show, I don't want to see that template on every new show that comes along.

But hey -- it's a copycat world. Much like when a big-time chef comes up with a dish completely new and revolutionary and a year later you can't escape the damn thing (no more foam, please!), TV executives love to feel like they're on the cutting edge.

Even if that edge belongs to a cookie cutter.

Timothy C. Davis' food writing has appeared in Saveur, Gastronomica and the Christian Science Monitor, as well as the web portal eGullet.com.

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