John Ostrander: Obsessive CHEWing

Some thirty years ago, I broke my left ankle in three places and was laid up for a while as it healed. It was around this time of year and it was a real harsh winter; I didn’t venture outside much because of the ice; crutches and a cast don’t lend themselves to walking on ice. I watched TV a lot, especially daytime TV. I was not then and am not now a fan of soap operas so I would find game shows and reruns to while away the hours. I became obsessive about some of them, especially reruns of Happy Days. I never said it was good TV, just compulsive.

These days, as I recover from my triple by-pass, I’m also into watching some daytime TV and my current obsessive show is ABC’s The Chew, which airs five days a week. The show is a cooking themed talk show featuring five co-hosts – Michael Symon, Mario Batali, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly, and Daphne Oz. I’m not a chef and I wouldn’t classify myself as a “foodie” but I am a pretty good cook and I credit television with sparking my interest in cooking. I’ve long had an interest in food and eating as most of my photographs from past years will attest.

I first got interested in cooking and the Food Network with the original Iron Chef, a Japanese cooking competition. I was intrigued by the description of the show as a sporting event using kitchens. The set, in fact, was called “kitchen stadium.” The show was eventually replaced on Food Network by Iron Chef America, an Americanized version using American chefs. From there, I went on to sample other cooking shows hosted by chefs such as Sara Moulton, Mario Batali, and Alton Brown. I also watched some of Emeril LaGrasse’s shows but didn’t get into them as much.

Iron Chef was fun and so was Iron Chef America until they “improved” the latter and made it almost unwatchable.

The Chew premiered in September 2011 and, while I sampled some episodes, I wasn’t taken with it. Shot before a live audience, it had a frenetic pace and an attitude of forced gaiety, trying to be a “party” every day. It put me off.

Sampling it again during my current convalescence, I think the show has jelled and I find it very entertaining. For me, the main attractions are chefs Mario Batali and Michael Symon, both of whom had been on Iron Chef America. Batali also had a cooking show on Food Network called Molto Mario and I was always struck by his ease before the camera and his knowledge, especially of Italian food and its history. I like it when I can learn something. Symon is also a great chef with a maniac laugh. Clifton Kelly was the co-host on What Not To Wear (and I don’t know how that qualifies him as food knowledgeable). Carla Hall was twice a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and wellness expert Daphne Oz.

The show wants to be a party and I think it succeeds. I most like shows where I learn something about cooking (although most of that happens on the PBS cooking shows such as Sara Moulton’s Sara’s Weeknight Meals and, most especially, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country – which are my favorites).)

The Chew has been successful enough to be ripped off by Food Network with The Kitchen. It also has a live audience and five co-hosts including an Iron Chef. To me, it seems a cut-rate version of The Chew; it’s gaiety and “party atmosphere” seem forced. It’s not the first time Food Network has done this; Robert Irvine’s Restaurant: Impossible is a low rent rip-off of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. Same concept for both – a borderline abusive UK chef comes to a restaurant that’s in trouble and gets it working again. In theory. Not all the restaurants saved are open a year later.

Still, I find it sad that Food Network, that sparked my interest in cooking, has become the home of rip-offs, endless food competitions, and/or “undercover” reality shows (although Mystery Diners is so staged it’s impossible to think of it as a reality show even within that genre’s elastic boundaries).

The Chew has a relentless pace; each cooking segment has only a few minutes allotted to it and so the hosts wind up speaking real fast which, I suppose, is supposed to add to the high energy feel of the show. I’m also a little put off by the shilling of certain sponsors’ products within the show. The segments become commercials embedded in the show.

As I return to my own work, I’ll have less time for The Chew but for now it informs me and entertains me – so what more can you ask from daytime TV? I mean, it’s no Happy Days… but, then again, what is?