Growing up, I was one of what I'm assuming is an infinitesimal amount of middle school boys who were eager for the end of the school day — not to get to sports practice, but to get into the kitchen.
I would make crab legs and roasted red pepper sauce and chicken dishes galore. I remember once, when my brother was hosting an exchange student and the student's guardian came to the house and saw me cooking, she sheepishly asked my mother "... you make your son do the cooking?"
Little did she know that I did, and obviously still do, find a deep, personal satisfaction with all things chopping, sauteing, saucing, cooking and roasting. This passion was cultivated early on by the Food Network, and Giada De Laurentiis was one of the particular chef-personalities who resonated with me. Her "Everyday Italian" beautifully reflected the Italian-American cuisine with which I grew up, both at home and when dining out with my family.
Earlier this month, De Laurentiis announced that she would be leaving the network after 20 years, a period of time during which she has become a figurehead and icon among chef-personalities. Her departure marks not only a shift for her career, but for the channel as a whole as its programming has evolved since coming on-air in 1993. Some of these changes have been welcome, while others mark a period of obvious "growing pains" for the network. No matter these shifts, though, I remain appreciative for the foundation that the Food Network's educational programming provided me.
When I was in middle school, Rachael Ray's "30 Minute Meals" was my #1 Food Network go-to, but Giada presented something fresh for me, explaining just how to make some of my favorite Italian classics at home and detailing it in a way that was understandable and simple. I appreciated her hilariously over-the-top pronunciation, her Italian-ness, her culinary training and her easy advice. These culinary lessons by way of television programming were formative in a way that might even feel silly or overwrought to some — how the heck could some 30 minute TV shows cultivate such a passion? But they really did.
Aside from Rachael and Giada, I was struck by the teachings of someone like Sara Moulton, who was amazingly informative and elucidating but never in a way that felt intimidating or overwhelming. As I grew and my palate and cooking abilities expanded, I shifted to the likes of Anne Burrell, Claire Robinson and Alex Guarnaschelli — who I then met a few years later while I was staging at her New York City restaurant Butter and she nonchalantly strolled up to me as a I frantically grated Parmegiano Reggiano and said "hey, Michael, how's it going?"
Programming at the Food Network shifted pretty exponentially in the early 2010s, a period of time during which they were impacted by a few very public scandals — including Sandra Lee's infamous Kwanzaa cake and the revelation that Paula Deen had used racial slurs in the workplace. Educational stand-and-stir shows were steadily replaced by countless competition shows, a ton of Guy Fieri... and not much else.
As The Hollywood Reporter put succinctly, "Fieri has stepped into a respected elder statesman role in the food world, raising millions for workers unemployed due to COVID-19," but it's undeniable that familiarity can breed contempt — and for a very long time, it felt like The Food Network was exclusively playing either endless repeats of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" or food competition programming.
This fatigue is encapsulated by Tara Taghizadeh in Highbrow Magazine:
"Typical Tuesday programming includes reruns of "Food Paradise," followed by a 17-hour block of "Chopped." And a typical Friday lineup includes episodes of "Cake Wars," Food Paradise" and a never-ending block of Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," which runs until 5 a.m. the next day. And on June 23, 2021, the entire Food Network lineups featured "Guy's Grocery Games" all day. Are you kidding?"
As Jesse David Fox wrote for Vulture, Food Network was an absolute juggernaut through 2013 or so, when it began to sharply decline in ratings. This is also about the same time I stopped watching, bored with their programing, their artificiality and their lack of any sort of original or interesting food (coincidentally, 2013 is also the year I began culinary school).
To be fair, I've never been one for food competition shows (aside from Top Chef). I did, however, adore "The Next Food Network Star," which combined culinary competition with the camp energy of the most asinine "America's Next Top Model" challenges, all buoyed by some profoundly insufferable judges. I recall one episode in which competitors were instructed to act out absurd scenes that were completely unrelated to the food they were cooking; one woman inexplicably decided to cosplay as some sort of unhinged mad scientist's assistant and my brother and I laughed about it for hours. What a joy! It was pure, unadulterated reality show chaos (it's also worth noting, perhaps, that Guy Fieri was the winner of the show's second season). Unfortunately, after also engendering its fair share of controversy, "The Next Food Network Star" is no more.
At the same time, though, Food Network still provided something bordering on tangible to its viewers. Fox continued in Vulture, writing "The network has become my audio-visual comfort food: I turn it on when I want to watch TV but not watch TV. Like a diner meal, I forget each bite as soon as it's chewed; the sustenance comes simply from being in a setting at which I can zone out and then leave feeling strangely relaxed, even if I'm not sure why."
I have felt this same way, for years and years — hearing the sounds of cooking in the background, the reliable voice of my favorite food personality gingerly, yet firmly, walking me through a recipe, learning an interesting tip or factoid, all wrapped up in a simple 30 minute episode leaves me with the same feeling I get while eating comfort food.
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Over the years — via both their shows and their cookbooks — I let Rachael, Giada, Anne and many other Food Network chef-personalities illuminate the world of food to me, explain techniques, describe textures and flavors, give tips and tricks and casually, kindly, generously lead me through menu ideation, timing and cookery at large. Food Network gets the credit, in that case, for helping to crystallize and distill my inherent passions, develop them more fully and help articulate an interest and a joy that has most certainly served me well ever since.
I legitimately learned from the networks' programming 20 years ago and while I don't know if that programming is still as informative, but I certainly hope there are some middle schoolers out there right now, learning bit by bit from their favorite Food Network personality, eager to leave school to spend time in the kitchen.
While Giada's departure to greener pastures may signal yet another shift, the Food Network is no spring chicken! As it approaches its thirtieth anniversary, it can also be fun to be sardonic and cynical and dunk on the network for the changes its made (both good and bad), but the point remains that without the Food Network, TikTok wouldn't be crawling with "foodies," YouTube wouldn't be rife with cooking tutorials, "Cook With Me" playlists, and "grocery haul" videos, food media may never have become as prominent and wide-ranging as it is and — let's be frank — I most likely wouldn't be writing this article.
So for that, to Food Network, I say thank you. No matter which food personalities depart, no matter how many cupcake competitions you air per day and no matter how inane the programming may get, I am endlessly appreciative for your helping to shape and refine something so important to me, both personally and professionally.
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