There's so much content available at all times and on so many different devices and platforms, that it's no wonder the discourse around television focuses on shows pitched toward prestige and the zeitgeist. But while year-end lists almost invariably gravitate toward the HBO dramas and Netflix series everyone constantly tweets about, there's a whole world of reality programming that people just plain watch. And right now there's nothing better in the world of reality television than the explosion of culinary-themed shows and series.
Netflix, with originals like Chef's Table, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and Ugly Delicious, has moved the dial toward respectability for the genre: A number of the service's shows have scored critical acclaim. Meanwhile, the influence of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay or the late Anthony Bourdain, whose work on the Travel Channel's No Reservations and CNN's Emmy-winning Parts Unknown set and then raised the bar substantially for this type of programming, cannot be overstated. But it's the Food Network and its younger sister, the Cooking Channel, that have been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting for culinary-themed content for years now — and it's time these networks get the respect they deserve for the countless hours of educational and entertaining food-centric programming they have been serving up every day.
When most people think about these channels, they probably think of traditional instructional cooking shows hosted by well-known celebrity chefs like Ina Garten, Emeril Lagasse, Giada De Laurentiis, Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, or even the home cook herself, Rachael Ray. Shows of this format are still around and remain quite popular among viewers, though they sometimes take on different themes (Brunch at Bobby's) or are hosted by celebrities more famous for their careers outside the kitchen (like Trisha's Southern Kitchen with Trisha Yearwood, Valerie's Home Cooking starring Valerie Bertinelli, and The Real Girl's Kitchen hosted by Haylie Duff, to name a few).
But culinary TV extends far beyond the reach of famous personalities explaining how to cook meals, and it has for a while. In 2006, the Food Network debuted Ace of Cakes, which offered an inside look at what goes into running a small business while focusing on one of the most fascinating forms of food art: cake decorating. The employees of Charm City Cakes, led by Duff Goldman — who is now a famous culinary TV personality thanks to the popularity of the show — all had their roles to play, both within the functioning business and within the web of the reality show. The series, which ran until 2011, proved that there was much more to the topic of food than simply explaining how to make it and that the Food Network has the power to turn its subjects into stars.
In 2019, viewers are interested in more than just how-to cooking shows, and the Food Network and the Cooking Channel have responded with new programs. Their lineups include competition shows (like Chopped, Iron Chef America, Beat Bobby Flay, and Cupcake Wars), educational programs (like Food: Fact or Fiction, Foodography, and Alton Brown's Good Eats), and shows simply about watching people eat enormous amounts of food (Man v. Food). These shows all lend themselves perfectly to marathon viewing, making the Food Network and the Cooking Channel good go-to destinations for comfort television. But as food-centric programming becomes more popular than ever, it's also become clear that the best genre of culinary TV is the food travel show.
Some of those shows will leave you with a second-hand carb and sugar hangover: Carnival Eats, for example, visits state and county fairs around the country to reveal some of the sweetest and weirdest concoctions imaginable. Other programs are richly educational, such as Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations, which highlights the iconic foods of various places around the world. And some simply take you to sample the cuisine of different coasts (Beach Bites with Katie Lee) or reveal the latest in the world of food and dining; for instance, as food trucks have become more and more popular around the U.S., so too have the programs that focus on the culinary creations produced within their mobile kitchens.
The best example of the influence of this type of show might be Guy Fieri's road trip-inspired series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. With 30 seasons under its belt, the show remains as appetizing as the food it highlights. Fieri, who won The Next Food Network Star in 2006, takes viewers to Flavortown (sorry, not sorry) by visiting small, local, and sometimes hole-in-the-wall establishments that are cranking out quality food that might otherwise go unnoticed. As much fun as it is to poke fun at Fieri and his boisterous, bleached brand, the bars and restaurants featured on the program often see a bump in sales after appearing on the show.
What is most interesting about DDD and similar travelogue programs is that instead of putting well-known personalities at their center (well, besides to play host), they put the spotlight on the everyday people working behind the scenes in the food industry, highlighting the effort and devotion that go into what many of us take for granted when we sit down to eat or order food in a restaurant. Making delicious food is an art form, one that goes underappreciated by most of us, and seeing people light up when they get to show off their craft for the camera can be pretty heartening.
It's all because food is one of the few things that links us all and brings us together. The best culinary-themed programs tend to recognize this and work hard to show the importance of building lasting bonds through food, both making it and eating it. So we'll keep watching the shows about it, ensuring that culinary-themed programming will never grow stale or lose its flavor.