The phenomenon of the American celebrity chef has been an important part of the growth of food television in the United States, but American food television is much more than a cult of culinary celebrity. Cooking demonstrations appear regularly on television news, talk and magazine-format programs from the national down to the local and public access cable level. American public television (the PBS network and its local affiliates), featured some of the first cooking shows in the 1960s with Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” and continues, both nationally and locally, to feature a wide variety of programming about cooking and food.
The Television Food Network (on cable and satellite) broke new ground in the 1990s when it created and sustained a full-time, seven-day-a-week schedule of food programming. A number of other home and lifestyle cable networks also offer significant food and beverage programming: Discovery (on its several channels), Fine Living, and the Travel Channel, among others. Canadian, British, Australian and international food programming is sometimes available.
The “Great Chefs” series broke ground in the 1990s with high quality programming, accompanied by the tasteful jazz of guitarist Charlie Byrd and the inimitable southern-accented narration of Mary Lou Conroy. “Great Chefs of the World” has featured vignettes on more than 800 of the world’s finest chefs; many American chefs have been featured and special segments have been done on the great chefs of American food cities like New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago. This stylish program has appeared on public television and on a number of cable networks.
American food television can be sub-divided into several distinct programming genres:
- The cook-in-front-of-the-camera format pioneered by Julia Child. Here the chef will appear in a well-equipped kitchen and talk to the camera while he or she prepares dishes according to the format of the show: healthy, ethnic, gourmet, family-oriented, economical. Dozens, if not hundreds, of these programs are produced.
- The cook-in-front-of-an-audience format pioneered by star-chef Emeril Lagasse. Here the chef will play back and forth to a studio audience as well as to viewers; members of the studio audience may be asked to assist in food preparation tasks and certainly in tasting. Guest celebrity chefs may join in the fun. Filmed vignettes may show the chef outside the studio, visiting food producers or shopping for ingredients.
- The food feature format; the host may travel to various restaurants or specialty shops in a specific region or following a specific theme, interview the owners or customers, and otherwise paint an appealing picture of the subject for viewers. This format may or may not stress travel destinations. A prime example: the “Follow That Food” series, in which host Gordon Elliott follows the use of a chosen ingredient all over the world.
- The food travel format; the host will travel, sometimes to exotic destinations where he or she will sample the food. Two good examples are Rachael Ray’s “$40 A Day,” in which Rachael travels to American and international destinations and engineers her meals so she can have a day’s worth of enjoyable eating for less than her $40 limit (with no fast food allowed), and Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour,” in which Bourdain travels the world (and the underbelly of the United States) eating whatever he must to please the locals, be it sheep’s head in Morocco, deep-fried Mars bars in Scotland, or a still-beating snake heart in Vietnam. The peppy, perky Ray is a day-and-night contrast to the cynical, hard-drinking Bourdain, which goes to show how varied this format can be.
- The food information format; the host will speak to the audience about cooking techniques in general (rather than specific meal preparation tips), give food science and historical background, and otherwise satisfy the viewer’s craving for information about the subject. A good example of this is Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” series, which uses a great deal of humor to impart wisdom about food and cooking. Most of “Good Eats” is taped in what appears to be Brown’s own home kitchen, with occasional field trips to growers and markets.
- The food documentary; the host, or perhaps an unseen narrator, gives history, ethnography, and science about a particular food or food issue.
- The food competition, of which there are several types. Following the success of the Japanese program “Iron Chef,” in which top chefs face challengers in an ultra-serious (and hence at the same time humorous) gladiatorial-style arena, “Iron Chef America” continued the concept with American chefs. Food programmers also cover the large competitions between top chefs sponsored by their various professional associations, for example, the American and world pastry and chocolate competitions. A third type of competition involves everyday American cooks who compete in the hundreds of nationwide food festivals and competitions in everything from chili to cake decorating. In all these formats, a host, and sometimes other reporters, will intersperse the competition with interviews and informational vignettes.
- The food reality program; a good example is the Fox Network’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” Here, demanding (and often profane) Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay eliminates one aspiring chef each week until the ultimate survivor wins his or her own restaurant.
- The diet program, in which groups of people who desire to lose weight, often in competition with each other, go through the difficult task of changing their eating and cooking habits.
- The food entrepreneur program; these chronicle the struggles, setbacks and triumphs of businesspeople with innovative ideas for new food products or culinary services.
- The restaurant makeover program, in which an expert or team of experts will advise a struggling restaurant how to change menus and appearances in order to survive.
- The kitchen makeover program, in which Americans, with or without outside experts, work through space and budget limitations to design more effective kitchen and dining areas for their homes and families.