By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; E01
At 17 days and counting, the Cooking Channel has acquainted American viewers with a batch of foreign cooks, the handiwork of food artisans and the subtleties of a Canadian accent.
The Food Network spinoff just hasn't taught them enough about cooking.
There were teachable moments, and show hosts such as Roger Mooking and Rachel Allen made the most of them. But when chef Chuck Hughes of "Chuck's Day Off" tells the camera his recipes are simple, then flips vegetables in a pan amid flare-ups while tossing around cheffy terms about his restaurant galley, it undermines the message.
General Manager Michael Smith says entertainment, not instruction, is the new channel's mission. To me, though, the assumption that its viewers already know how to cook has the effect of gravity on a cooling souffle. The younger target audience may indeed be more food-savvy than their parents. But that doesn't mean they know what to do in the kitchen.
Committed cooking-show watchers, myself included, spent way too much of Memorial Day glued to the debut lineup as Ching-He Huang stir-fried "Chinese Food Made Easy" and Manhattan mixologist Darryl Robinson exhorted folks to "Drink Up." A handful of episodes ran, and ran again, flanked by a precious few paid commercials that became mighty tedious.
As I watched into the wee hours, the MTV-MTV2 model came to mind: In the beginning, there was one network playing nonstop videos, which were gradually overtaken by reality programming and rockumentaries, which spawned a second channel that began playing . . . nonstop videos. These days, Food Network shows that draw the biggest numbers are about competition and towering cakes.
"This is Disney World's Magic Kingdom versus Epcot Center," Smith told me last week. "The kingdom is an entertainment experience, while Epcot is an immersion kind of thing. Food Network is for leaning back and being entertained, while Cooking Channel is more for people who want to lean in."
They might lean in, but lessons fall short of the ones anyone can glean from watching Jacques Pépin bone a chicken or Ming Tsai make tempura on public television. The demographic that Cooking Channel is going for is 18-to-49, not the 50-and-up of culinary PBS.
It is not supposed to be a video cookbook, Smith says. "Getting recipe info is a very small part of why people watch. They want to be exposed to TV shows about different kinds of food."
That mission is accomplished, at least in the culling of recent cooking series from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. So keep in mind that when Cooking Channel's on-air talent says to "pop it into the oven at 180," chances are they mean 180 degrees Centigrade, or about 350 degrees to you and me.
How would a casual viewer be able to recognize the alternate oeuvre that Cooking Channel is going for? Production values, for starters. Mooking, a 36-year-old chef-restaurateur-musician, is one of several Toronto chefs featured. His "Everyday Exotic" is shot with his own soundtrack and lots of camera cuts. His multicultural background and overuse of the descriptor "amazing" convey the Cooking Channel vibe.
An "Exotic" show on papaya used the fruit in a variety of ways, demystified the term "gastrique" (a boiled-down sauce of vinegar or wine and fruit) and managed to deploy an entire can of coconut milk so none of it was wasted; all good instruction. The part where he tossed a lemon in the air and caught it with the upturned point of his chef's knife? Kids, don't try this at home.
"We'll do a single-ingredient show so they can find out more about the spice and ways to incorporate it. We're here to be a gateway of inspiration," Mooking says.
The show is perfect for someone who watched Rachael Ray's "30 Minute Meals," Smith says.
If someone was inspired enough to make Mooking's food, finding the show's recipes on CookingChannelTV.com would not necessarily help. Two versions of each recipe are listed, which might irritate or confuse you. One is a photocopy of the chef's scribbles for his kitchen staff, and the other is a properly written recipe, but it might not accurately capture what was done on camera.
Independent production companies provide the online support materials that appear on the Web site, so the quality of the recipes varies quite a bit. "Chinese Food Made Easy" dishes are expertly detailed. "Food Jammers" creations, not so much. Search the Cooking Channel recipe archive, and lots of dishes come up from hosts not yet seen on the new network.
The channel has introduced three particularly likable food personalities whom other parts of the English-speaking world already know: Scottish baker (and Darina Allen daughter-in-law) Rachel Allen; Australian chef-restaurateur Bill Granger; and Canadian Laura Calder of "French Food at Home" fame, who spent a decade in France and reigns as one of Canada's most popular culinary celebrities.
Their shows come from their earlier seasons shown on Food Network Canada or Good Food TV in Australia or Britain. (About 50 percent of the shows are new to U.S. viewers, with a target ratio of about 70 percent, Smith says.)
One wonders just how many shiny-bright culinary stars the American public can truly care about. Another season of "The Next Food Network Star" is underway, and the seventh season of Bravo's "Top Chef" starts Wednesday night. The prevailing theory suggests that the sky's the limit. Being associated with a brand builds viewer loyalty, and the total number of food-show hours on TV has more than doubled in the past four years. In less than two weeks, Cooking Channel had amassed 38,000 friends on Facebook and had pulled in greater numbers than its predecessor, Fine Living Network, ever did.
"Food Jammers," yet another Canadian export, has maximum dude wattage, albeit without much heat. Nobu Adilman, Micah Donovan and Christopher Martin build apparatuses to create 3-D pizza and gyroscoping chicken on the grill with slacker bonhomie. Three seasons of their show are available; based on the food and recipes so far, I'll be surprised if American viewers clamor to see them all. There are reports that the show has been canceled at home.
The original shows "Foodography," "Food Crafters" and "Unique Eats" are hipper versions of Food Network's "Secret Life of," "Food Finds" and "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." Host Mo Rocca, a smart nebbish who cut his food-TV teeth as a judge on "Iron Chef America," is best taken in occasional doses, not the current back-to-back, hour-long blocks of "Foodography" that are on now. Smart, funny onscreen commentary for these shows by food writers John T. Edge, Francis Lam and Matt and Ted Lee enhances the contemporary vibe.
A 24-hour network has lots of slots to fill, of course, and Cooking Channel was savvy enough to heed Food Network fans who missed old friends. That's why Julia Child, Graham Kerr and "Two Fat Ladies" live in reruns, albeit late at night or in midafternoon rather than in prime time, when people who remember them might have a better chance to watch them. Over the weekend, instead of heavy play of Steven Raichlen's "BBQ University" and Bobby Flay's old barbecue specials, it would have been nice to see the "old" old faces instead.
As new, six-episode shows cycle out, general manager Smith says, imported or original programs will take their place. He acknowledges there's a catch in running shorter-season shows; it will be tough to tell which ones have staying power.
Plans are in place to bring on 12 recycled and original series by the end of the year, and Cooking Channel viewers will see new moves from faces they recognize: Flay, Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Michael Symon. Their programs were not available for preview by press time. Thirteen episodes from Lisa Lillien of "Hungry Girl" cookbook fame are on tap. Judging from her recipes, I'd say the prospects of learning to cook with real, fresh, non-processed foods are slim.
I question the wisdom of not coming out of the gate with a strong schedule of new shows; the hodgepodge and replay of the past few weeks did not create a strong identity.
Fan feedback will be closely monitored, Smith says. If the new generation of food lovers really wants to be hands-on, now is the time for them to speak up. Cooking Channel might be mistaken in its thinking that "Food 2.0" is all people are after. With interest in food on TV at an all-time high, deciding not to deliver a solid foundation of cooking basics to this generation seems, well, half-baked.