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Chefs are people too, and we have TV to thank

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Chefs today hold a place alongside many other artists, experts and professionals, but this wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t long ago that when a chef appeared on TV or a movie, he was a crazy, temperamental French dictator who simply yelled to communicate. And when someone mentioned the chef at a restaurant, he or she was a faceless entity too nervous or stressed to step outside the kitchen and meet the public.

While many Americans could regularly tune in to such gregarious personalities as Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and Justin Wilson the “Cajun Cook,” and be entertained as well as educated, no one really talked about them. All three of these chefs artfully constructed dishes that anyone could cook at home, but as a youngster I cannot recall anyone ever duplicating or preparing any of those meals.

In the 1980s, Wolfgang Puck and Jacques Pepin were chefs everyone knew from PBS or travel channels, and were instantly endearing on camera. But these culinarians still didn’t reach many audiences on a regular basis.

Then in 1993 something came along that not only changed the way we cooked, but how we watched TV, and more importantly for chefs, how we were perceived outside of our kitchens: the Food Network.

The channel started with early personalities I distinctly remember not everyone being drawn to, such as a young Bobby Flay in a half-unbuttoned shirt. Nevertheless people were watching and preparing these dishes at home.

Then something else happened. Or more precisely, someone else: Emeril Lagasse. With a bigger-than-life smile and personality, an immaculately pressed chef coat, and maxims such as “Bam!” and “Kick it up a notch!” a new era had begun.

Everyone was watching. But more importantly for our discipline, the public was now interested in chefs. Words like “dark,” “introverted,” and “temperamental” that chef and author Anthony Bordain used to describe some chefs were pushed to the wayside as we began seeing chefs in clean, brightly lit kitchens preparing dishes that were both interesting to them and approachable to the home viewer.

Much like American wines that took decades to receive accolades as compared to their old world French counterparts, chefs were getting the recognition that France and Spain had been giving their chefs for centuries. We had arrived.

Food TV has produced a few drawbacks. In a manner similar to the Greek tragedy, we as chefs have created a monster in that everyone seems to know what a perfect duck confit is and lets us know how we can improve ours.

In a recent conversation, Iron Chef Cat Cora told me that food programs on TV have some negative effects, such as the false expectation that a chef who attends a culinary school should aspire to be a food TV star as opposed to a being just a great chef. But, she said, the positive effects are more prominent.

“Food TV has done so much in terms of exposure for chefs today,” Cora said. “No matter your journey, it’s an amazing career, and hard work and passion can take you anywhere you want to go. Food TV has opened up those doors for us all.”

In the big picture, most chefs I talk to are appreciative of what food TV has done for the profession, and so am I. Thank you, Food Network.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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