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Food-Themed Reality Television a Boon to Culinary Profession


"Right now, there are about 60,000 students enrolled in culinary programs throughout the country. In 1972, there were 1,800."
By Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Critic: Every father has to share his daughter someday. It just happened a lot sooner than I expected when my 11-year-old, Alice, recently informed me that I was no longer the sole person responsible for her budding interest in a culinary career.

After toting her along on hundreds of restaurant reviews since the time I could tuck her under the table in a car seat, I wondered who the other scoundrel could be. But as I watched the flicker of fanciful cakes from the TV screen twirling in her smitten brown eyes, I knew.

The culprit was that scruffy-faced, backward-hat-wearing, drill-wielding, marzipan-molding, happy-go-lucky cake-boy from Baltimore: Duff.

I couldn't feel too bad. First off, I don't bake. But, anyone who's witnessed the power that Duff Goldman and his jolly Charm City cohorts on Ace of Cakes exert on youngsters should know its effect. A steady diet of food programming - and in particular reality TV - is as addictive as an on-demand dose of molten chocolate.

The consequences for the food world as a whole, meanwhile, have been nothing short of profound, as such shows earn prime-time ratings.

"I can think of no other industry that's been impacted more greatly by reality TV than the culinary profession and food business," said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America. "Right now, there are about 60,000 students enrolled in culinary programs throughout the country. In 1972, there were 1,800."

"Even 10 years ago, chefs were just chefs," said Jennifer Carroll, the 10 Arts chef de cuisine who last year placed fourth as a "chef'testant" on Top Chef. "Now, chefs are like the new rock stars."

Of course, America's food awakening over the last few decades can be attributed to a number of other influences, too, from Julia Child to creation of the 24-hour Food Network, and the grassroots rise of the organic and slow-food movements.

But there has been something particularly intoxicating about the recent reality-based revolution, as the staid formula of talking-head pros has been supplanted by pumped-up dramatics that blend The Real World and Survivor with pots and pans. "Knights with shining cutlery" prepare for food fights in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef. On baking shows, cakes become man-handled fondant fantasies that appear to serve better as fireworks-spewing sculptures than as something appealing to eat. And when, I wonder, is apoplectic Gordon Ramsay not blowing a foul-mouthed, meatloaf-tossing fit at his hapless scullions on Hell's Kitchen?

The big question, though, as these shows unwittingly morph from mere entertainment into recruitment propaganda, is whether the food industry ultimately benefits in the long term or becomes a caricature of itself.

The consensus among the chefs I spoke with, not surprisingly, was unanimously in favor their profession's newfound status - and guardedly appreciative of its potential for earnings and fame.

Local star Jose Garces, who last year stepped onto the national stage by winning the Food Network's Next Iron Chef crown, recently took a whirlwind visit to New York that any A-list celeb would envy, bopping from the James Beard Awards to featured segments on Today and Nightline in a span of 24 hours. Top that off with another Iron Chef win last week in Battle Blue Cheese.

"Two years ago, I would have said 'no way,' " Garces, 37, said. "It's pretty wild . . . I've got 5- and 9-year-old kids now coming up to me saying, 'Hey, chef, I loved Battle Watermelon!' The way it's touched kids is amazing."

But there is a serious flip-side to the elevation of the chef to TV star, especially in its influence on younger cooks.

"The work ethic has suffered in the industry," said Marc Vetri, who has participated in a yet-to-be seen episode of Iron Chef, but generally resists TV appearances. "It's kind of opened this ceiling [of opportunities], but it's also given a lot of chefs unrealistic views. . . . Just because you win a cooking competition does not in any way make you qualified to be a chef."

And while the mass exposure of food information has generally been a boon for raising public awareness and piquing the creativity of aspiring cooks, Vetri said it also has eroded an appreciation for building-block fundamentals.

"I once had a guy who walked in one day with a recipe that had slices of something with an hibiscus foam . . . . But the guy couldn't even blanch a carrot. He couldn't even salt anything right."

The C.I.A.'s Ryan said that such criticisms are just an age-old cycle playing out, with members of the generation in its prime looking disapprovingly at their eventual successors.

"Today's students have never known a day when chefs weren't superstars," he said. "They see a completely different career model [than we did], they dream big dreams and I see nothing wrong with it."

With a few notable exceptions, stardom rarely happens to chefs who don't spend years honing their skills in the trenches.

"If there's one thing this industry doesn't pardon, it's lack of talent," Garces said. 

That doesn't mean one needs to tolerate years of pot-throwing abuse from a tyrant like Ramsay.

"Hell's Kitchen is a scandal," said frequent Top Chef judge Eric Ripert, the chef-owner of Le Bernardin in New York and Carroll's boss at 10 Arts. "I'm mad at Gordon because . . . I cannot believe they are promoting violence and humiliation [on his show]. That's not the inspiration we want to give to young chefs."

But even in the "happier" confines of Le Bernardin, he said, TV glamour quickly fades once cooks get their fingers into the fish guts and grueling prep work of a genuine kitchen. The pretenders, he said, inevitably quit.

Carroll, 35, who began her career as a 15-year-old on the Ocean City boardwalk helping peel 500 pounds of potatoes a day for fresh fries at Bob's Lemonade, has certainly paid her dues.

"For me, it was all about going into food, not being a TV star," Carroll said.

Ironically, her starry turn on TV is now shaping her daily reality, too. It wasn't until she excelled on Top Chef with dishes like clam ceviche and bourbon-glazed halibut that Ripert was finally persuaded, by popular demand, to relax 10 Arts' conservative bistro menu and allow Carroll to get more creative. A five-course seasonal tasting menu for $59 was started last month.

"Of course, I knew she was a good chef, but we just accelerated the process, and the show definitely played a role," said Ripert. "But it's Jenny that did it."

A new TV cooking idol for my 11-year-old girl? Perhaps. At least this star's meals we'll be able to share together for real.

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