I watch in awe as she deftly wrestles a shank of lamb into submission. The concoction of herbs she rubs onto the meat bakes into a crisp crust, the perfect foil to the tender flesh underneath.
To follow, she expertly spreads a cloudlike layer of butter cream icing onto a mysteriously dark chocolate cupcake.
As the Barefoot Contessa fades off my TV screen and a commercial replaces her, I reach for my stale bag of Tostitos and dubiously old bottle of salsa. Just as I have done for the last couple of years and just as I will likely do for the following years to come.
Because, you see, despite my own lack of epicurean delights while watching I remain a religious subscriber to all things Food TV. Specifically I’m a huge fan of Ina Garten, host of the fabulous show Barefoot Contessa.
And in my fervour I am not alone.
Anita Tavakol is a York university student who got into cooking shows when she was still relatively young.
“I began watching when I was around 17 years old. I remember being bored one day after school and flipping through channels. I landed on this guy who was making food that looked really good and I was really hungry at the time so I started watching it.”
And she has been hooked ever since. Although limited cable access on her residence prohibits her from watching these shows on a daily basis she makes a point to catch up on the weekends when she returns home.
“I love how suspenseful some to them are, like Hell’s Kitchen and Iron Chef. Their use of music and camera angles and cutting back and forth really builds up suspense much better than any Hollywood blockbuster ever could.”
In recent years many cooking shows have revamped their formats, modernizing both technical aspects of filming as well as the way in which cooking is depicted. As a result a new breed of show has emerged that inculcates elements of reality TV, which in turn has led to the ascension of the celebrity chef.
We now live in the era of Giada De Laurentiis, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain, chefs who have gained spin-off shows, restaurant chains and rock star credibility.
And for Tavakol this is a good thing.
“I love Glutton for Punishment, Everyday Italian, Nigella Express, Iron Chef America (because the original isn’t on anymore.) Oh and also Hell’s Kitchen. Gordon Ramsey is god.”
Graphic designer Amy De Wilde is also a fan of Ramsey, famous for his foul mouth and equally foul temper.
“I definitely like Gordon Ramsay. I watch the British version [of Hell’s Kitchen] and the American version, but the British version one is better,” she says with a chuckle. But yeah, I think it’s fun. Food is something that everyone can relate to, it just seems natural to watch. Not only will you be entertained but Gordon Ramsay is really fun. I’ve checked out his cookware and stuff but I guess that’s a pretty loyal fan without being crazy.”
But in a world where celebrity obsession does indeed border on psychosis, I hardly consider my own er, obsession to be, well psychotic. I’d like to believe that my infatuation with their prowess in the pantry remains within reason.
“For me the level of celebrity doesn’t come from how much their paycheque is and how much paparazzi pictures there are,” says Tavakol. “But if I saw someone like Bob Blumer I’d probably not be able to speak.”
Blumer is the host of The Surreal Gourmet and Glutton for Punishment. In the former he rides around in a toaster shaped van, whipping together cake shaped burgers and burger shaped cakes. In the latter he travels the world entering into specialized cooking contests and thus giving himself only a few days to master techniques that usually take a few years.
“I really like him. He’s melancholy, he’s not always happy-go-lucky,” says Tavakol. He’s done garlic braiding, solar-powered egg cooking, and he was a street vendor in New York. And in all of these challenges he comes in where he’s totally out his element and in the span of five days he becomes a professional.”
For University of Toronto student Ruwaida Mortuza cooking shows have always been a part of her life.
“The first cooking show I watched was with Martha Stewart. I remember my mom used to watch it all the time, growing up it was always on. I started watching it when I was nine and I remember thinking it was interesting,” she says as she sips her hot bubble tea. “When I realized that Food TV is much more exciting to me than teen dramas I was about 14. I remember thinking, ‘this is better than 90210.'”
But celebrity appeal cannot be the only reason that hordes of foodies are drawn to their TV sets at all hours of the day.
“Watching them cook in their kitchen in a very homey classy traditional way is very ecomforting to watch. It’s very de-stressing.”
While this is true, there are many other factors that draw viewers in. For some programs like Iron Chef there is a huge kitsch factor that goes along with the culinary finesse showcased in each episode.
“I love the Japanese Iron Chef. I watch it for the dubbing. This one time, a female chef said ‘it tastes so good in my mouth,'” she says as she laughs. “I don’t know where else it would have tasted good.”
The popularity of Food TV is hardly unregistered in pop culture. In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch one of the parody commercials featured a voice over saying “You’re watching food network. Porn for fat people.”
Indeed one is certainly left lusting after tiramisu when watching Everyday Italian, or craving spaghetti carbonara, regardless of size. But for many the shows are not about the celebrity chefs at all.
“I would be happy to see them but I wouldn’t stand in line for them or anything. For me it’s nothing celebrity. It’s just something to comfort me. I would say it’s my guilty pleasure,” says Mortuza.