COMMENTARY

Not just Paris: How did the "celebrity who can't cook" become food TV's fastest growing genre?

We've gone from watching Jacques Pépin flipping an omelet to watching Ludacris struggle to open an aluminum can

By Ashlie D. Stevens
Published August 6, 2021 8:03PM (EDT)
Cooking With Paris (Kit Karzen/Netflix)
Cooking With Paris (Kit Karzen/Netflix)

Paris Hilton can't really cook. This was evident during her pandemic-born YouTube series "Cooking with Paris," during which she made her "infamous" Sliving Lasagna. "Sliving," it should be noted, is Hilton's new catchphrase; it's a portmanteau of "slaying" and "living." (Though Hilton appears fixated on getting "sliving" to be a thing, it hasn't caught on yet.)

Over the course of the 15-minute video, Hilton, who was dressed in a shimmering rainbow shirt, spent an inordinate amount of time puttering around her new kitchen on the hunt for various utensils: a cheese grater, a spatula, something appropriate for stirring five tubs of ricotta cheese. 

She offered up a few tips so offbeat that they almost registered as camp. After adding too much salt to a bowl, Hilton demonstrated her "towel trick," which involved wiping out the excess with a dampened paper towel. Despite the fact that Hilton forgot to add garlic and onion to her sauce, she demonstrated how she had actually brought a pair of glittery sunglasses into the kitchen to don while cutting onions so her mascara wouldn't run. 

"Lasagna is very hard to make," she said. "Well, actually, I don't think it is, but people think it is. But it's actually really fun and really easy. But, I guess it is a lot of steps compared to, like, making toast or something." 

While the final product didn't look too shabby — the lasagna had a golden-brown, bubbling top after spending about 40 minutes in the oven — Hilton's lack of kitchen prowess is evident yet again in her new Netflix series, also titled "Cooking with Paris." 

The premise of the series is simple and, on its face, doesn't diverge too much from the format of beloved cooking programs like "Barefoot Contessa." Hilton chooses a theme for dinner, goes out and does the shopping, decorates her home and prepares a meal for a special guest. However, we're not roasting chicken for Jeffrey here. 

Instead, Hilton does things like pay an events company to pack her dining room with thousands of white balloons while she cooks breakfast (read as: attempts to cut marshmallows that aren't set and burns French toast) with Kim Kardashian.

Over the course of the season, Hilton asks Siri, "What does lemon zest mean?" She also asks a grocery store employee what chives look like and what you do with them. Hilton even spits out her own food in the sink, and when a batch of ravioli doesn't come out, pulls some of the pre-made Eataly variety from her fridge as she encourages viewers to always have a backup plan. 


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In all, the show feels like an elaborate joke, though one that Hilton is obviously in on — a vanity project that seems more meant to sell a collection of "Sliving" cooking gloves than to demonstrate skill. Yet while watching the rainbow and glitter-decked spectacle, I found myself wondering what we expect of cooking shows these days, anyway? Hilton isn't the only celebrity to take a stab at hosting a contemporary stand-and-stir with the added curveball that they aren't a trained cook. 

Over the past year, Amy Schumer, Ludacris and Selena Gomez ("Amy Schumer Learns to Cook," "Luda Can't Cook" and "Selena + Chef," respectively) have all taken on similar gigs.

How, exactly, did we go from watching Jacques Pépin flip a perfect omelet with impeccable technique to watching Ludacris struggle to open an aluminum can? 

***

One of the first food TV programs, "Cooks Night Out," aired on the BBC in 1937. It was hosted by Marcel Boulestin, a French chef and restaurateur, who created a five-episode series during which he demonstrated how to cook five different dishes, including an omelet, filet de sole Murat, escalope de veau Choisy, a salad and crêpes flambées. They could be cooked separately or as a five-course meal. 

As Mario Bustillos wrote in his essay "The Chef for Every Age," the show's target audience was upper-class individuals who could afford then-very expensive TV sets, but whose at-home cooking staff had already shoved off for the evening. 

By the time food TV made its way to the States in the '40s, by way of beloved programs like James Beard's "I Love to Eat" and Julia Child's "The French Chef," the tone was decidedly more egalitarian. Both Beard's and Child's passion for culinary education was born from a love of good food. "Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again," Child once said. 

The Food Network launched in 1993, with the original brand positioning of "TV for people who cook." The original lineup for the network included Donna Hannover, Robin Leach, Emeril Lagasse and Jacques Pépin. Within the year, the network also acquired the rights to the Child's library. And while the first several years were successful for the burgeoning network, audience interest shot through the roof as the branding was changed in 1997 to "TV for everyone who loves to eat." 

It's a subtle but significant change that signaled a shift in mainstream food media: You don't have to be a good cook to enjoy our programming. As long as you like to eat, our chefs can guide you.

Of course, Food Network was created, at least in part, to educate — but more than that, it was created to inspire confidence in home cooks. Viewers who spend 30 minutes watching "Barefoot Contessa" or "East Meets West" finish feeling as though they can cook like Ina Garten and Ming Tsai. That's the magic of aspirational food TV. As Allen Salkin, the author of the Food Network history book "From Scratch," told me in 2017, thus began an "almost a two-decade tradition at Food Network of an underlying theme that anybody should be able to cook." 

The concept that everyone can cook also became the foundation of some of the network's most popular programming. In 2005, "The Next Food Network Star" was launched. It put talented home cooks alongside industry members in a competition to earn their own cooking series. In 2016, the network released the series "Cooks vs. Cons," which pitted two home cooks against two pros to see whose kitchen skills reign supreme. Their identities are concealed from the judges until the very end. 

The amateurs try to con the judges into thinking they're a real chef, while the pros simply try to prevent the "embarrassment" of being beaten out by a real estate agent or a high school geography teacher. 

"It's on everybody's mind that they all want to be a chef," judge Geoffrey Zakarian said during a Food Network Q&A. "So it's very fun for people to imagine trying to trick someone like myself and two judges into [believing they're] a chef, so I think it really sets up their interest first."

***

As Food Network continued to flourish — and following the publication of radically insider books like Anthony Bourdain's  "Kitchen Confidential" — the cultural perception of chefs also began to shift. While the phrase "chefs are the new rockstars" was eventually repeated to the point of parody (so much so that there was a 2013 festival called CHEFStock), restaurants became destinations for some diners who wanted to brush against a different kind of celebrity. 

While chefs became celebrities, some celebrities sought to become recognized as chefs — or at least as talented home cooks and entertainers. In 2012, singer Trisha Yearwood debuted "Trisha's Southern Kitchen,'' which won a Daytime Emmy the next year.

In 2015, actress Valerie Bertinelli launched her Food Network show "Valerie's Home Cooking," in which she was advertised as "more than a successful actress" and "a homegrown whiz in the kitchen." That same year, Tiffani Thiessen of "Beverly Hills: 90210" began hosting her Cooking Channel series "Dinner at Tiffani's." Also in 2015, former NFL player Eddie Jackson won "The Next Food Network Star" and remains in heavy rotation on the network. 

While there were some nods to the hosts' celebrity — watching "Trisha's Southern Kitchen," for example, you knew it was only a matter of time until her husband and fellow country star Garth Brooks walked into the kitchen —they otherwise operated like a standard stand-and-stir TV show. 

At some point, the cooking show genre skewed yet again, and people who couldn't cook took a turn in the celebrity spotlight. In 2010, "Worst Cooks in America" debuted on Food Network. The premise was simple: Two heralded celebrity chefs take on the task of transforming useless home cooks into seasoned semi-pros. While it could be argued that the show was a modern, if slightly snarky, interpretation of the network's "everyone can cook" ethos, it also elevated amateurism as entertainment. 

This isn't a surprising development; reality TV has long mined the trials and tribulations of average folks for drama and cringe, and countless viewers are primed for those types of shows. From this swirl of entertainment, education, amateur and celebrity comes this new genre of culinary programming: celebrities who struggle to wield a knife but are going to take a stab at hosting a cooking show, anyway. 

Perhaps this is because they're genuinely interested in becoming better home cooks; for what it's worth, that seems to be the case for Gomez, whose show "Selena + Chef" features her virtually cooking alongside experts like Angelo Sosa, Antonia Lofaso, Candice Kumai, Daniel Holzman, Ludo Lefebvre, Nancy Silverton, Nyesha Arrington, Roy Choi and Tanya Holland. 

For some of the other hosts, I have a sense that these were merely pandemic projects. As production schedules, tours and concerts came to a screeching halt, celebrities were notoriously not OK. (Remember the ill-advised celebrity cover of "Imagine"?) Getting into the kitchen perhaps seemed like an easy way to connect with one's fan base.

I'm not sure that it's necessarily a bad thing. It's natural that as a genre continues to develop, a spectrum begins to develop. The Olympics airs alongside "Wipeout." You've got prestige dramas and "F-boy Island." And "Chef's Table" is available on the same streaming service as "Cooking with Paris." After all, everyone can cook. 

 

For more stories about how food television (and our relationship with it) has changed over time, read these: 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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