What is the Future of Cooking on Television?

By Matt Schoch, PBS Food Senior Editor

Jacques Pepin, Tim Love, Spike Mendelsohn and Ming Tsai | Photo Courtesy of Alice Koelle - Alice Koelle Photography, Inc.

Take a quick glance at the hundreds of cooking shows on cable and public television, and it’s clear that America is obsessed with food and cooking shows. But most of them no longer bear much resemblance to the groundbreaking The French Chef. What does that mean and where is cooking on television headed?

Gathering together at American Express’ Restaurant Trade Program at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, four chefs shared their experiences, insights and predictions on the future of cooking on television. The panel included public television chefs Jacques Pepin and Ming Tsai and Top Chef contestants Tim Love and Spike Mendelsohn.

The group represented three generations of TV celebrity chefs, distinctly different backgrounds and experiences, and varying opinions on the future of the genre.

Mendelsohn and Love both saw dramatic life changes after appearing on the popular Bravo competition show, but acknowledged that what gets ratings these days is a long way from what Julia Child created so many years ago.

“What Jacques did was so pure and about food. What TV does now is not pure and about food. It’s different now on TV,” said Love.

Chef Tim Love | Photo Courtesy of Alice Koelle - Alice Koelle Photography, Inc.

Chef Tim Love | Photo Courtesy of Alice Koelle - Alice Koelle Photography, Inc.

“This generation is a generation that doesn’t have any patience,” said Mendelsohn. “They don’t really want to sit through a half-hour cooking show for one recipe. They want to see a show where there is a quick fire, and within 15 minutes there are 10 different recipes. This reality television thing has really shaped the whole industry.”

But, according to Tsai, PBS and public television offer a chance to do a traditional cooking show.

“I wanted still to do, like Jacques’ show, a true cooking show. I still do technique, talk about sushi rolling, why to buy this rice or that rice,” he said. “I owe my career to [Food Network]. But they wanted entertainment. They wanted me traveling on Ming’s Quest. That was fun, but they were going away from true cooking shows.”

Ming Tsai | Photo courtesy of Alice Koelle - Alice Koelle Photography, Inc.

In addition to the changing landscape on television, the internet is also a burgeoning source of cooking content.

“Millions of shows are out there,” said Tsai. “It’s a totally different landscape. There are some great web TV. Some great videos out there of some amazing undiscovered people. It’s cool that they at least have an opportunity.”

But Love worried the food element is becoming lost, especially online.

“For a Youtube video to go viral, we’ve taken the food component out of it,” he said.

The Future of Cooking Media

So what is coming next for cooking on television? The panel had differing thoughts.

“Reality is done.” said Tsai.

Or maybe not. “I think people are gonna keep pushing the limits of reality television. I think we’re going to keep progressing in the direction it has been going,” replied Mendelsohn.

“I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope it continues,” said Pepin. “Fifty years ago, I came to America and there was only one kind of lettuce at the supermarket: iceberg. And there were no leeks, no shallots. So I hope it continues.”

“I think it’s gonna take a while for America to marry itself to it, but I think what people want is the true reality of food, from start to finish,” said Love. “Seeing a calf born, same calf being slaughtered. People are afraid of it, but they really want to know it.”

In the end though, the panel agreed that none of it matters if you can’t actually cook.

“At the end of the day, you still have to cook. If you can’t cook, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing, who you are, how good your accent is,” said Ming.

“If I didn’t have my classic training, if I didn’t have all those years working really really hard, long hours, I don’t think any of my restaurants would be successful,” added Mendelsohn.

Watch the Full Discussion

About the Food & Wine Classic

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2012 with an all-star line up including Jacques Pépin, Mario Batali, and Ming Tsai leading over 80 cooking seminars and demonstrations over the course of three days. Senior Editor Matt Schoch is in attendance to bring his first-hand experience to PBS Food readers.

What Do You Think?

So is the traditional cooking show dead? Do you want more reality and competition shows or have you had enough? Tell us in the comments.