Food shows have led the way for the TV industry, from experimental television to streaming and beyond, explains a new book
In the beginning, there was Julia Child and The French Chef. That’s what most people think was the start of food shows on TV, but it’s not quite right. Even at the advent of television in the late 1940s, there were daytime instructional shows for housewives on how to cook for their families. Only much later, starting in 1963, did the tall French chef from Pasadena take to the airwaves.
That change, from daytime commercial TV to public TV, was an early sign of how food shows mirror the development of television, says Tasha Oren, an associate professor and director of the Film and Media Studies program, in her new book Food TV. It’s a pattern that has continued over the decades, as TV has moved from broadcast to cable to streaming, and popular entertainment became less about scripted shows and more about “reality” and competition.
Using food as a window on the history of TV makes sense: Who hasn’t watched a food television program, from Julia Child and Joyce Chen to Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray, from Iron Chef and Top Chef to Chef’s Table and Taste the Nation?
“I was struck by this notion that in most places around the world, you can turn on your television at any moment in a 24-hour cycle and watch a food show,” says Oren, who logged countless hours watching food-related shows while researching the book.
Television, she says, is “an articulator of culture.” Think about what food television looks like in any decade, and “you get a very good sense of what’s happening in all sorts of areas of society: home, caretaking, nourishment, sociability, gender, race, tradition, domesticity, class.”
Real Housewives and Home Cooking
Cooking shows started on radio during World War II as a way to educate women to be frugal in those times of shortages and austerity. Enter TV in the late 1940s, and the shows were still “how to be a good housewife, how to be a good cook, how to take care of your family,” Oren says.
By the mid-1950s, television had become a truly popular medium—more than 70% of American households owned a TV by 1958. TV was supported by commercials, but cooking shows for housewives didn’t have much advertising potential: There weren’t yet many national food brands to pitch. “So the cooking show becomes less and less relevant on commercial TV,” Oren says.
This is where public television found its niche, and there’s no better example than Julia Child. “She’s not selling products, she’s selling pleasure,” Oren says. “She is appealing to an audience who think of themselves as learners, as sophisticated. She’s not talking about taking care of your family. It’s self-development, which is perfect for the PBS brand.”
“‘Emeril Live’ became a show about having fun and changed cooking on television. Now it was safe for men. This is the moment where it took off with Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay—all those guys. All of a sudden, food was safe for straight men to enjoy.”
A few years later, Joyce Chen filmed her Chinese cooking show at the studios of Boston public television station WGBH—where Child’s show was created. It aired nationally in 1967 and in reruns through the mid-1970s. Child and Chen didn’t have commercial potential, but both found an audience and helped bring more awareness to public television. They also reflected an America that was looking beyond its borders, Oren says, as the U.S. flexed its muscles on the international stage.
Bam!—a Cable Revolution
By the early 1970s, a new way to watch TV was just getting its start: cable. The technology had existed for a while but had never gone anywhere because of FCC regulations protecting broadcast television from competition. President Richard Nixon, who was hostile to broadcasting networks, got those restrictions lifted, and that gave birth to the nascent cable industry.
In her book, Oren delves into the history of the Food Network as an exemplar of the rise of cable TV. In the beginning, the Food Network struggled to find an audience, with instructional cooking shows that attracted a mostly female audience.
The turning point for the network—and food TV—came in the form of a pugnacious-looking chef with what seemed like a Brooklyn accent (even if he was, in fact, from Fall River, Massachusetts): Emeril Legasse. He had appeared on cooking shows on the Food Network from the beginning, including one called How to Boil Water, but followed the old formats.
The network was struggling financially when Legasse was given a new show—Emeril Live—to develop in 1997. It was a departure from the standard cooking shows: The set was a restaurant kitchen with seating. It had a talk show vibe, complete with music and audience participation, not to mention Legasse shouting “Bam!” every time he added spice to a dish.
“It moved away from the constraints of an instructional show, and Emeril started appealing to a male audience, which was really the tipping point for the Food Network,” Oren says. “It became a show about having fun and changed cooking on television. Now it was safe for men. This is the moment where it took off with Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay—all those guys. All of a sudden, food was safe for straight men to enjoy.”
Enter the Iron Chef
Still, when we think of food TV these days, it’s competitions that spring to mind. It all started, Oren says, with an obscure Japanese import, Iron Chef. It’s not obscure now, of course, but back in 1992, the popular Fuji Television Network show was first rebroadcast on a San Francisco Bay area cable network that catered to Asian Americans.
The audience in the U.S. was envisioned to be first- and second-generation Japanese Americans. But their children “loved the show and thought it was hilarious, and not all of them even knew Japanese,” Oren says.
“Food is the most distilled logic of competition shows: You’ve got personalities, you’ve got time limits, you’ve got the immediacy of audiences watching. Are you succeeding or are you failing?”
They started talking about it online—the emergence of fan networks and fan culture was just becoming a thing, Oren says—and sharing it. It popped up next on a New Jersey cable network, and then around the country in cities with higher-than-average populations of Asian Americans.
The story goes that a low-level worker at the Food Network brought a VHS tape of the show to his bosses there, and their first reaction was a hard pass. But then they did more research and “discovered that the show was incredibly popular with men and with college kids, audiences that Food Network wanted to reach, but couldn’t,” she recounts.
So the Food Network contracted with Fuji, dubbed the show into English, and started airing it in 1999; it immediately it became its most popular show, even beating out Emeril Live. “With Iron Chef, the Food Network suddenly is part of the wider culture, and with it, food television really becomes popular,” Oren says.
Character and Conflict—the Perfect Mix for TV
At almost the same time, reality TV became a thing in popular culture. Survivor started in 2000, along with any number of similar shows and competitions. Networks, whose livelihoods were threatened by the rising popularity of cable, appreciated that reality TV is cheaper to produce than scripted shows. It also provided a workaround during labor disputes with writers.
A decade later, in 2010, the vast majority of programming on the Food Network was made up of competitions, says Oren.
Cooking competitions make for ideal TV shows because they showcase character and conflict, she says. “All of reality television is character and conflict. I always tell my students who are thinking about screenwriting and storytelling to watch reality TV, because it distills human conflict into narrative through editing.”
TV, she notes, is especially good at documenting process, and cooking competitions are the perfect form. “You can follow people working through something and then see the end product—it’s incredibly satisfying to watch this,” she says. “Food is the most distilled logic of competition shows: You’ve got personalities, you’ve got time limits, you’ve got the immediacy of audiences watching. Are you succeeding or are you failing?”
The camera can get right in the mix, too: Is this souffle rising? Is that caramel burning? “The tools that chefs use are easy to see in action, and of course, there’s the tasting and judgment. And Iron Chef really created that,” Oren says.
Cooking competitions have thrived for more than two decades—Top Chef, for example, has been going strong for 20 seasons and spawned more than 20 international spinoffs; Iron Chef and MasterChef are longtime TV fixtures; the Great British Bake-Off will be airing season 14 this fall. But a new type of TV show has come along, too, marking yet another transition in television: the docuseries.
The epitome of the trend is the Netflix series Chef’s Table, which Oren devotes a chapter to in her book. “Chef’s Table would decisively reconfigure professional cooking from fine craft to art and offer the chef’s creative process as artistic biography, exalted human drama, and peak experience recounted on an operatic scale,” she writes.
The spark for the series was the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which didn’t garner much attention in theaters, but became a huge hit on Netflix, and led to the offer of the Chef’s Table series for director David Gelb.
Both the 85-year-old sushi chef in the film and the high-end chefs profiled in the series exemplify the spirit of entrepreneurship that was gathering steam in the 2010s, Oren says. “It was the time of tech bros and the relentless productivity porn that’s becoming a religion specifically for young men,” she says. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table landed right in there: the chef as warrior, the chef as disruptor, the chef as self-made entrepreneur, the chef as somebody who bucked the system and fought against the rules and created this new thing out of old thing.” The series led the way for Netflix—and subsequently other streaming services, cables channels, and broadcast networks—to lean into the documentary space, Oren says, yet another example of food TV being a signifier for all TV.
“Netflix has since then established itself as the major force of docuseries—for good or ill,” she says with a laugh. “The fact that Netflix went with food as its very first docuseries is really important. Netflix is always pivoting toward what’s next.”
After following food TV through its many changes—and seeing how they mirror change in the wider world of television—Oren ends her book with a detailed look at Vice Media’s forays into food TV, with shows like Bong Appétit straddling “both major types of cooking instructional—the domestic and the professional—in a manner that all but suggested cannabis’ own transitional status from illicit to public and domestic to commercial,” Oren writes.
Maybe that is a sign of another transition. But either way, looking at TV and culture through the lens of food, Oren suggests, is valuable—and fascinating. It “offers a pathway through a changing television landscape, with a clear view of how such changes shape, occur within, and respond to cultural momentum,” she writes. “As such, cooking on TV has consistently been where shifts in medium, practice, and meaning are brought to simmer together.”