As this impromtu video suggests, Michael Symon, grows increasingly comfortable in front of a camera. And he seems to love to do TV. He’s filmed a series of webisodes for the Wisconsin Cheese board which are actually kind of interesting (in his first, he pairs Wisconsin parmesan with shrimp; I’m curious to see how well such cooking videos do on the web and what they’ll become in the future). He’s a favorite at the Food Network. While his ratings as host of “Dinner: Impossible” edged by those of Robert Irvine, the network continues to have faith in the Cleveland Boy with a couple of new shows, “Food Feuds” and “Cook Like an Iron Chef,” in addition to “Iron Chef America” and judging on the latest “Next Iron Chef” competition.
As many of you who followed the original “The Next Iron Chef” three years ago know, I personally anointed Michael winner because he is a friend and a fellow Clevelander; I also helped him write his book, and we remain friends, so take the following as you will.
The Food Network has created a second channel—and I’m finding this very interesting. The Cooking Channel (NYTimes story here) is devoted more to how-to cooking than to travel and entertainment, and also is attempting to capture a younger audience with shows like “Food Jammers,” a truly bizarre concept that has absolutely zero appeal as far as I’m concerned, I being a 47-year-old jaded writer, old enough to be the uber-food-geek hosts’ dad. But the one show I saw, in which they stuff and roast a turkey, freeze it, slice it in cross sections, build a dehydrator for it, all in an effort to have a thanksgiving dinner while camping, would surely have appealed to my sixth grader son. A guy named David Rocco, who lives in Italy, creates a dump-and-stir show, “La Dulce Vita,” that actually has a narrative line and characters. It creaks a little under the weight of creating that narrative, but I admire it for trying to take the how-to cooking show in a new direction.
And Symon has his own dump-and-stir, “Cook Like an Iron Chef.” In each episode, he works with a single ingredient, as he would on Iron Chef, and he has two assistants helping him prep and who trot up at the end of each dish, tongues a wagging, to taste and ohh and ahh. I have no idea who these characters are, but I’d much rather see Powder, the Lola chef de cuisine (one of Cleveland’s best cooks in fact—can you say crispy bone marrow?) and other chefs we’ve seen on “Iron Chef America,” than these two blameless young cooks, but the show is finding its legs.
What is cool about “Cook Like An Iron Chef,” besides the very good production quality, the dark, industrial set (as opposed to a studio made into an improbable home kitchen), is the fact that Michael is very much himself on the show and his food and what makes it distinctive really comes through (making a vinaigrette for seared scallops, for instance). Yes, he’s a little more hopped up and cheery than he is in person, as he’s no doubt directed to be when he’s filming for TV, but the food and the info is not dumbed down in any way that I could see, or in any way compromised.
Except for the fact that brass at Time Warner made me pay extra to subscribe to The Cooking Channel (perhaps as some sort of fuck-you to the Food Network after battles earlier this year over carriage fees), I’ve liked what I’ve seen and hope, given that it is experimental by nature, that the channel and the man in charge of programming there, Bruce Seidel, will take advantage of this and actually take some chances. Hey Bruce, how about an opinion show, something that took a moral stance on cooking, the importance of teaching every single child at least the basics of feeding oneself decent food, and the importance of, not necessarily of how to roast a chicken, but rather the importance of knowing where that chicken comes from in our increasingly complex and confusing food world? A show on the moral imperative of cooking, and how cooking keeps us not only healthy, but human.
I’m oddly encouraged—and honestly didn’t expect to be—by this new channel and will be tuning in for more.