2004/09/07

Todd English: American Chef Gone Wild

By JULIETTE ROSSANT

Todd English Julia Child is barely dead and in the ground when PBS, home of so many of Julia's TV programs, announces its betrayal of all she represents -- coming to you on a local station in Spring 2005, care of Todd English, American chef -- gone wild.

First, PBS is mating its wondrous cooking shows over the year with a format popular elsewhere, namely "Reality TV" (see definition and discussion, below in this article). One has to question the wisdom of this formatting choice, given NBC's twice unsuccessful foray into Food television, first with Emeril Lagasse's ill-fated Emeril back in Fall 2001, then with Summer 2003 and second-round Spring 2004 runs of The Restaurant (which charted the meteoric rise and fall of chef Rocco DiSpirito (see "Rocco Barred From Reality TV Restaurant" and "Rocco: Trapped in Reality TV's Twilight Zone?").

WGBH Certainly, as citizens of a free enterprise, commercially oriented nation we can appreciate PBS's apparent desire to capture a younger share of the TV audience pie, but, let's face it, PBS represents quality -- some of TV's finest content -- while Reality TV represents quantity for the young, TV-consuming masses and is a travesty and crime against the mind. How can PBS and producer WGBH, who together have nurtured us such fare as Frontline, Ken Burns' The Civil War, Arthur and most famously Masterpiece Theatre, now rip us off with prime time tripe? Alistair Cooke and Julia Child, among others, must be groaning in their graves. This is a defining moment of downward spiral for public television: the closest equivalent I can think of is the "Shock and Awe" promised in late January 2003 in the lead-up to the March 2003 launch of the War on Iraq (sorry, "Operation Enduring Freedom") -- followed by anti-climactic noise and then a steady spiral descent into disaster.

Andy Warhol self-portrait, Hirshorn, 1986 After all, what is "Reality TV"? To my Media and Entertainment expert/husband, Reality TV is a Showbiz industry term for a TV format in which "real" (as opposed to fictional) characters act out light (or even situation-only) scripts, all of which boil down to extremely low writing and acting costs and allow expenditures to max out on gimmicks. He agrees with most that the first modern "Reality TV" show was MTV's The Real World (1992-present) and adds that The Osbournes (2002-present) just a decade-later is a natural regression to something (slightly) more interesting than The Real World's nobody characters, namely self-engrossed, self-destructive, and even more self-conscious rock-n-rollers. Most of the other popular Reality TV shows, in his estimation, revolve around some sort of contest in which a nobody becomes a somebody (the moment of metamorphosis from Nobody to Ozzy Osbourne, as it were), which "Pop" artist Andy Warhol (who is credited with the term "superstar") fathered directly by making his famous prediction, "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" into an MTV show (Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes on MTV, 1986-1987). The real avalanche started on CBS with Survivor (2000-present).

After that lengthy and penetrating analysis, let's play at Showbiz executives and review process of selecting the Reality TV format as PBS might have reviewed before locking into their upcoming turkey, American Chef:

Girls Gone Wild Q: Will the M.O. be something really grabbing, like the highly successful, late-night Girls Gone Wild?
A: Nope, you're cold...

Q: How about a cooking version of Survivor?
A: Come on, how can chefs cook outside the kitchen? Then again, maybe you've got something there... but you're still cold...

Q: Oh, oh, how about an indoor contest, like American Idol?
A: OK, you're getting warmer...

Q: I know, I know -- a chef contest a la Donald Trump's The Apprentice?
A: That's close enough.
Reese SchonfeldBefore we forget, however, let's give Food credit where credit is due. The Food Network, pioneer of Food Entertainment Television founded by Reese Schonfeld (also founder of CNN -- but that's another story and one covered from his own viewpoint in Me and Ted Against the World), experimented with a number of new formats such as Chef du Jour (described in Super Chef pp. 154-156 and also in Me and Ted Against the World pp. 331-339. Reese gave me better details during our interview, but I only had room for what affected Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger directly in their chapter) and Ready, Set, Cook!. These were "dump and stir" recipes, which aimed at being "peppy and cheap," as the sagacious president of the fictitious The Sun Also Sets (played by Garry Marshall) opined during the film Soap Dish.

The ApprenticeOK, we've got the Reality TV format (The Apprentice) named, examined, and understood, so let's turn to the host, perpetrator, and star of this latest Reality TV crime, a chef on the rebound, recovering from his own earlier meteoric rise and fall, someone whom I have studied in depth and a super chef himself.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Todd English.

MTV Hits Talk about metamorphosis! For the past two years, before Super Chef went to press, I have been listening to Todd English talk about his TV project with WGBH, which he dubbed "Open Kitchen." Todd described it to me as a vehicle for selling Todd English lifestyle products. Of course, Todd also talked about a more exciting show he dubbed "Rock'n'Roll Chef," in which he would cook for and with rockstars (Super Chef, p. 125). And of course Emeril has already been doing this (see "Just a Spoonful of Aerosmith Makes the Emeril Go Down"), but Todd's was a pure "chef to the rockstars" format, to follow his appearance on MTV Hits in June 2003. (I was present during the taping even rode to and from the site with Todd, described at length pp. 89-93 of Super Chef).

Todd English Instead, according to The Boston Globe's ever-reliable Alison Arnett last week, American Chef (as opposed to the very Japanese Iron Chef or the Todd English-starring Iron Chef USA?) will offer "a new career path to culinary stardom" -- much as The Apprentice offers "the dream job of a lifetime with The Trump Organization and a hefty six-figure salary." Yes, the winner through 10 episodes will earn the right to work in one of Todd English's restaurants, having proven champion of food preparation, ingredients, sanitation, and restaurant design. Todd will be one of the judges; the others have yet to be named. The object, Todd told Alison by phone, is to find a chef with "natural talent... that 'little something'." He concluded, "You either have it or you don't."

BlueZoo Todd is definitely coming back with a vengeance. Last month, he opened Ozone-BOS, a 2,520-square-foot bar and restaurant at Boston's Logan Airport. Partner HMSHost Corp bills the restaurant as "hip." He has also just reopened Olives in the Bellagio in Las Vegas, after extensive renovations. Within the last 12 months, he has also opened two other concepts, BlueZoo in Orlando and Todd English Restaurant Aboard the QM2. Last month, he even received mention from Wall Street Journal writer Lauren Mechling in an article on "Design doctors add cachet, costs to redecorating" about his kitchen designs (also mentioned in Super Chef, p. 125). No doubt, Todd is moving forward again in his restaurant empire. By Alison's count, he has now 17 restaurants (though with concept designers such as Todd one must be careful always to distinguish between concept or management and outright ownership).

No Shame Again, in this free enterprise economy, I suppose all is well and good with what Todd is doing with American Chef. I certainly admire him for joining Men With Heart (see blog entry "Agassi’s Star Palate: Celebrity Chef"). During shooting, just after Julia Child's death, Todd was quoted in The Boston Herald as saying, "It was eerie... Here I was, right [in the studio] where she started..." He went on to say, "I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have her as a mentor in my life" -- funny, that never turned up during months of interviews we had, nor in the Super Chef chapter on him (pp. 89-129). "She is an icon, a legend in our time," he concluded. I don't think anyone who claims to have appreciated Julia Child could produce a Reality TV food show in her old WGBH studio. Then again, "No shame, no gain": maybe Todd's just bold and shameless enough to pull this caper off -- "right where she started."

American Chef Confusion reigns. Right now, WBGH does not list anything having to do with Todd English (other than Ming Tsai's or David Rosengarten's shows). The logo (above) listed on a sponsorship-seeking website depicts "The" American Chef -- a direct aim at Julia Child's The French Chef? -- while the PR name in use American Chef seems to be attempting to mislead attention-deficient younger audiences by making the name as close as possible to American Idol. Also, Open Kitchen seems to still have life but with little information available beyond its own sponsorship page.

Juliette at her computer When I add all it up -- the failure of Emeril and Rocco (even with a Reality TV show) on NBC versus the tried-and-true success of Julia Child & Co. over the years on PBS -- all I can do is wonder at PBS and WGBH. As for you, Todd, what are you doing?!

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