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Amusing the Fooderati

On television, the Internet and in print, camera-happy chefs are helping feed the nation's obsession with its palate.

August 15, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's early morning at the Fancy Food Show, and you can already smell the salsas, saltimbocca and ceviche, the Camembert, calimari and quesadillas that will be spoon-fed to 25,000 visitors from around the world. Most have come to check out the latest fads in America's booming food specialty market. But some just want to be stars.

Television chefs, gourmet raconteurs, mediagenic restaurateurs--you name it, they've got the bug. And as the wannabes gather at Javits Convention Center, Lou Ekus has some bracing advice. "American cooking shows are designed to entertain people, not instruct them," says the president of AirTyme Corp., a consulting firm that trains would-be TV chefs. "Just because you cook well in your home, or interact nicely with people in a restaurant doesn't guarantee success."

Ekus starts pacing the room, like a sous-chef ready to box the ears of a dimwitted apprentice. He's trained some of the best, including the Food Network's Emeril Lagasse, but this morning he shows tapes of a lesser-known author, Jim Fobel--before and after media training.

In the first tape, Fobel is promoting his "Whole Chicken Cookbook" for a TV interview. When he's asked why people should care about chicken, he answers softly, almost defensively. "Because it's a mild meat." "Oh, yeah!" booms Ekus, laughing derisively. "There's a good reason for buying his book. I'm rushing right out!"

Then he shows Fobel several weeks later, fielding similar questions but looking remarkably more alert. "Great to be here!" the author smiles, before beginning his spiel. He nods at easy questions, deflects critical ones and makes it clear that Americans need chicken more than ever.

Asked who will be the next superchef, Ekus confides that he is training a man who assembles granola in his basement. "He really believes he's going to be the first Granola Crossover Celebrity. And don't laugh. In this culture of ours, anything is possible."

Once a puritanical society that ate poorly and mocked gluttons, America has gone food crazy. Just check out the food media: Television and radio shows, cookbooks, magazines, newspaper columns, newsletters and Internet sites devoted to cooking, eating at home and dining out are growing by leaps and bounds. And much of the media chatter is aimed at an increasingly sophisticated audience that can't get enough, especially when it's delivered hot off the grill by TV-friendly gastronomes.

"Chefs used to be seen as blue-collar types who didn't earn too much money and didn't have much respect," says Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. "But now the media has elevated them, and they've become bona fide stars."

The focus of the food media has changed dramatically since the days when Julia Child first stared into a PBS camera and taught Americans how to boil a live lobster. Back in the '60s and '70s, chefs wrote cookbooks to establish themselves professionally, says Geoff Drummond, co-founder of A La Carte Communications in New York. Yet today they compete fiercely for television exposure, and publishers who once sought written proposals for earnest little books ask would-be chefs for flashy TV tapes.

"It's all about entertainment," says Rick Bayless, a passionate Chicagoan and producer of a multi-part PBS series on Mexican cuisine. "The country is more interested in the personalities on these shows and the excitement they create than in the details of cooking. It might disappoint purists, but food has become theater, pure and simple."

*

Perhaps the nation's obsession with fine dining illustrates historian Jacques Barzun's belief that our society has entered a state of near-permanent decadence.

We're not talking chocolate. It's a moment in time when key institutions--political, religious and corporate--no longer knit people together, and many are "peculiarly restless," searching for new indulgences, Barzun writes. It's an era when "boredom and fatigue are great historical forces." This is not a negative view, simply the description of a culture questing for the Next Big Thing.

And it helps explain the rise of the fooderati. Their passions have been stoked by a robust economy, the maturation of American tastes and a sense that culinary knowledge bestows status. We're not just what we eat. We're also what we read about cooking, and which gourmet shows we watch.

"This fascination with food used to be confined to the upper classes, but now it's spreading into the American middle class and beyond," says Alan Davidson, author of the encyclopedic "Oxford Companion to Food." "Nowadays when people entertain, they have to be able to talk about food and unusual dishes. They want to be able to say, 'Yes, this is a rare form of pepper grown only on the western slope of a mountain in Peru, and it's available only in New York."

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