A while back a friend sent me an article about how Guy Fieri had single-handedly ruined The Food Network. I don’t give Fieri that much credit. I think the network itself has lost a little respect for the American viewer. Somewhere a handful of jaded marketing people have persuaded the network’s executives that it’d be a good idea to move the television kitchen onto the Jerry Springer sound stage.
I haven’t given up on The Food Network though, because I know how great a cooking show can be. The Great British Baking Show is the kind of thing Julia Child would watch on the edge of her seat with a bowl of popcorn. The show is a celebration of food and cooking that elevates both the participants and the viewers at home.
10 things The Food Network could learn from The Great British Baking Show
- Include cooking instruction. When we watch The Great British Baking Show we say things to each other like, “Oh, so that’s how you make phyllo dough.” On The Food Network, unless you’re lucky enough to catch a rare episode of The Barefoot Contessa convincing us that hosting dinner parties can be fun, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any culinary education. In lieu of it, The Food Network’s lineup is sending the message: Cooking is dreadful and scary – let’s either not do it (grab one of Guy’s recommended burgers) OR let’s rush through it as fast and as with little involvement as possible.
- Don’t manufacture rivalries. The contestants on The Great British Baking Show don’t trash talk each other or brag about how much better they are. They actually help each other during competition and are sad when they have to say goodbye to one of their own at the end of an episode. Are they just so much nicer than contestants on other shows? Highly doubtful. It seems scripted on The Food Network’s shows when contestants behave like egomaniacs who want everyone else to fail. *cough* Cutthroat Kitchen.
- Let the contestants cook. We don’t want or need elaborate personal histories or to hear how they’re going to use the prize money to buy their mother a new gravestone for the father who tragically and heroically died making her his famous spaghetti sauce. You’ve got 23 or 47 minutes to excite and entertain us with food preparation. We’re not here for a food-themed soap opera.
- Show the contestants cooking. One of the great things about The Great British Baking Show is the “technical challenge” portion of each show. The contestants are given a recipe and then the judges leave the kitchen to explain the intricacies of the dish to the television audience. Back at the main stage viewers get to see how each contestant goes about executing the not-very-specific recipe and how close they can get to the exemplar. It shows their personality and cooking style a lot more than an interview in front of a brick wall not cooking.
- Amaze us with genius, not shortcuts. Cooking at its highest levels is an art form, so show us artists. The Food Network has been celebrating mediocrity with shows like 30-Minute Meals, Semi-Homemade, and 5-Ingredient Fix. Nobody is denying that some days you need a quick dinner, but for those of us who enjoy cooking and baking, these shows are dreadful. Dumping a can of apple pie filling atop a store-bought angel food cake is not a recipe. Not even the most inept person in a kitchen needs a cooking show to pull that off.
- No gimmicks. Cooking is exciting to your audience. That’s why we’re watching a cooking show. You don’t need to make one contestant make a quesadilla with a curling iron or sprint through a pantry for hidden ingredients or any similar nonsense.
- Cool it with the excessive recaps. One quick “here’s what happened last week” will do. On shows like Chopped there are so many intros and out-tros and flashbacks that the cooking part only takes up about 25% of the show. Cut to commercials or breaks when you need to. We understand. We’re not going to forget what happened 5 minutes ago.
- The host is not the show. I love Alton Brown as much as anyone. I’ve made and enjoyed plenty of his recipes. He’s the real deal, a cook. That’s awesome. If he’s not cooking though, his personality infused into a show as host just means that much less attention is going to be paid to the cooks. I love that The Great British Baking Show has two funny and entertaining hosts that are not cooking professionals. They’re engaging and they never steal the show. The host is a supporting character, that’s why the guests are different each talk show. We love the host who shines the spotlight on their guest, not themselves.
- The judges can critique without being jerks. The contestants on any cooking show feel bad enough when their food isn’t up to snuff. We’ve seen some complete disasters on The Great British Baking Show and the judges were still respectful of the contestant who screwed up. They all laugh about disasters together. There are too many cooking challenge shows on The Food Network that seem to pride themselves of having judges that make Simon Cowell seem like Mother Theresa. Along with #2 on this list I don’t blame the judges. I blame the directors telling them that being an asshole is good for ratings.
- Don’t kill traditions with trends. Cronuts are amazing, but so are dozens of cooking and baking traditions that have been around for generations. Thanks to The Great British Baking Show, we’ve learned of the German Schichttorte, the Hungarian Dobos torte, and the Slavic Povitica. In their race to feature the next fried Twinkie, The Food Network is missing out on hundreds of years of great recipes. With their huge audience they could be at the forefront of preservation of cultural traditions; instead they’re looking for something new to deep fry.
I know this seems like a Food Network rant, but we don’t think of it that way. The Food Network has a solid history and there’s still hope for its programming. We just hope they start playing to the best in us instead of the worst.