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Let Them Eat Cable: Roasting TV's Fiscally Irresponsible Chefs
September 17, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

The following is a rant. Because it is for a civilized website, I will do my best to keep it polite. But this is one idiocy, plucked from television's large army of dimwitted efforts, that makes me especially irritated. It has to do with cooking shows -- and the high cost of certain elite ingredients...


A Sept. 13 Associated Press story had this as its lead:

"The ranks of the nation's poor have swelled to a record 46.2 million -- nearly 1 in 6 Americans -- as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions still struggling and out of work. And the number without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, the most in over two decades."

As I revealed in a piece I wrote for this site a few months ago, a lot of cooking shows find their way into our home. And it's the attitude of some of those overpaid, usually overweight TV cooks about ingredients that makes my blood rise to a rolling, well-salted boil.

Way too often, these hefty celebrities who are spending other people's money talk with maddening condescension to their audience about the use of ingredients -- more specifically, the enduring shame of not pouring the best olive oil, thin-slicing the costliest of truffles or flavoring "only with a wine you would drink yourself."

It goes on all the time, from using only freshly squeezed citrus to adding only a good (translate "expensive") chocolate, to flambeing only with a "really good" brandy. There is way too much of this snobbery. And its pervasiveness is matched only by its cluelessness.

Food Network's Ina Garten, host of Barefoot Contessa, is the champion practitioner of food snobbery, perhaps because she lives in East Hampton -- which appears, from watching her, to have been spared a recession (see photo at top of column). She's closely followed by Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. Perhaps because of her many years at Gourmet, even Sara Moulton sometimes slips into a fantasy mode while Rachael Ray (above) has turned Extra Virgin Olive Oil into not only an acronym, but an official grocery-store brand: EVOO.


I heard a chef today tell his viewers if they used concentrated orange juice in the recipe he was preparing instead of squeezing the juice from whole oranges, "You'd better not tell me about it." That is was Chef Walter Stalb (right), whose A Taste if History runs on perpetually impoverished public television, made the transgression all the more absurd.

The list is longer, but it's the attitude more than the transgressors that burns me.

One in six Americans is living in poverty, and almost 50 million Americans can't afford a visit to a physician. If these prima-donna disciples of standing rib and Courvoisier really believe their stern advisories to pay top prices for quickly digested ingredients will indeed persuade their followers to buy only highly priced hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano or imported Belgian chocolates instead of doing more necessary things with their limited funds, then these baloney-brained chefs should be indicted for child endangerment, gross misuse of funds and abject moronity.

I heard my parents talk about the Great Depression. What we're in the midst of today isn't as bad as that time. Nonetheless, it's a awful time most of us are enduring. It's not the time, I believe, to be endlessly espousing the kind of blind, siphoning materialism that helped put us all here. Cheese from a green can isn't great, but it won't mark you with an indelible brand of shame either.

If there is any parallel path in the fate of a monarch who ignored the crumbling world around her to sell her subjects on the qualities of cake, and were I one of the celebrity chefs who seem to share that same vacant thought process, I would keep my chef's knives locked up and the Cuisinart permanently unplugged, before someone flambeed me with some cooking sherry.

From a screw-top bottle.


Mac said:

Hey, if it's any consolation, Tom, the deals these chefs make to lend their names to merchandise (books to frypans and DVDs) don't last beyond one Mother's Day to Christmas cycle. By the following spring, much of this junk can be had for pennies on the dollar at buyout joints like Big Lots and (East Coast) Ollies Bargain Outlets. Ollies' current ad hawks some guy named Marcus Samuelsson's wares closed out. Next?Maybe Julia Grownup's "Here's Cooking At You" from PBS old Electric Company has a deal in the works.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 8:30 AM

john said:

I don't think it's snobbish or out of bounds for cooks to recommend high-quality ingredients in their recipes. I'm sorry for anyone for whom extra-virgin olive oil is an unthinkable extravagance, but if people can't even afford cooking oil, maybe cooking shows aren't for them.

I do laugh when Ina Garten blithely calls for a pound or two of cooked lobster meat, or when Martha Stewart's recipes call for precious and extravagantly expensive ingredients which she uses in such minuscule amounts they couldn't possibly make any difference in the finished product.

Call me snob if you like, but I'd rather eat nothing than consume something contaminated with those white shavings that come in a green cylinder marked "parmesan cheese." But I think that people who prefer to cook with high-quality ingredients are no more snobbish than the people who look down on cooking and feel superior for eating things they heat up in the microwave and eat on the run.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 9:59 AM

Eileen said:

Thank you, Tom, for being the voice of reason is a world gone crazy.

The last time I prepared a "chef" recipe, it would have been cheaper to take my family out to dinner. And many of the ingredients were for a "one shot" meal; they lie dormant in my kitchen cabinets.

Rachael Ray started out with the best of intentions, i.e., preparing quick, inexpensive meals; somewhere along the way she lost her own way. And looking at her audience, they appear to be middle class working folks and not high end foodies.

It would be wonderful with all these chefs getting so much airtime if one of them would at least do a small segment during their shows related to inexpensive & healthy meals. I know it can be done. I'm just waiting for one of them to take that initiative to the next step.

Part of the problem is this emphasis on "organic" foods and the price tag that carries. How did we all live so long without "organic" cookies at Whole Foods?

Thanks for this column. The statistics you quote should make America's leaders hang their heads in shame. Food banks are understocked and overused and mostly being done through the auspices of your local church. My son & I passed our parish, Nativity, the other night. Clearly posted on several spaces around the church were signs that "Due to NYC budget cutbacks the food pantry and daily hot lunches have been suspended". This is a parish that feeds the elderly poor and many of the Mexican workers & their families in the neighborhood. And where do most of those workers toil? Yup -- the neighborhood restaurants.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 2:13 PM

Bob Shaw said:

Are you serious? Why not write a column about crime shows that obviously have no regard for victims? Has one of these chefs taken food from the poor? Have they badmouthed the hungry?
You don't like blind materialism? Me neither. But there are so many more worthwhile targets than cooking shows.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 2:58 PM

DEN2 said:

I have noticed this snobbish faux pas. I ignore it. I view it with a grain of salt; only the finest of sea salt, however.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 3:37 PM

Nathan said:

TV cooking shows have long been more about concocting aspirational fantasies than realistic recipes. There are a few exceptions, but not many. Certainly the days of Julia Child working in her home kitchen with an electric oven and an electric range are far behind us. Most of the people tuning in to watch Mario Batali or Emeril Lagasse have no intention of making the food; they just want to go on a little escapist trip.

It's not much different from shows about spoiled rich kids that are watched mostly by the middle and working classes (because the real spoiled rich kids are too busy with their dressage lessons and trying to score coke to care about what happens on Gossip Girl). I would expect cooking shows to get more opulent during a recession, rather than more down to earth.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 4:59 PM

Zach said:

Julia Child always advocated moderation and I think that is a primary ingredient missing in this discourse.

Comment posted on September 17, 2011 7:01 PM

Simon Bao said:

Sorry, Tom, but I think you're barking up the wrong trees.

TV Chefs Dishing Up Snobbery is not new, but you're wrong to single out Ina Garten as a leading offender.

She simply isn't. Her recipes are approachable and *generally* affordable, despite the high-end surroundings and often loony scripted scenarios with her Hamptons friends.

If you are looking for some Big League Cable Offenders, those demonstrating Unspeakable Density in the Face of The Great Rececession, start with Top Chef, move on to Michael Chiarello, and round up a few of the PBS All-Stars while you're at it.

Comment posted on September 18, 2011 1:19 PM

Diana said:

That's why I love Jacques Pepin. In the early part of his career he worked for the Howard Johnson restaurant chain, which (in his words) taught him how to stretch a dollar and waste as little food as possible. His shows always include tips on how to use vegetable scraps for stocks, how to re-purpose leftovers for another meal, and what to substitute if you can't afford the higher priced ingredients. He recognizes that everyone, no matter their economic state, should enjoy cooking and know how to make delicious, healthy meals.

Comment posted on September 19, 2011 8:16 PM
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