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Has Reality Hit Reality Food TV?

If the universe has taught us anything it’s that life is cyclical.  Greece becomes the world’s first global empire but in just a few hundred years it is replaced by Rome.  Rome lasts a few hundred years giving way to the Ottomans who then yield to Great Britain.  See what I mean?

The same is true with television programming.  Remember when westerns ruled the tube?  Of course not, if you are old enough to remember that chances are you don’t know what a blog is.  You’ve heard the names though: The Rifleman, Big Valley, Rawhide, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, et al.  Every channel (all three) had several westerns.  That was followed by family sit coms, cop-buddy shows and the night-time soap opera.

The same is true for food television.  Remember when food shows featured talented chefs who taught you how to cook and actually made learning entertaining?  Then came the food contests like the original Iron Chef which was followed by Iron Chef America, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, etc.

Chamed City CakesWhen Ace of Cakes hit the air back in 2006 it was a revelation of food programming.  Food Network had simply taken a camera crew to chronicle the everyday lives of the anything-but-everyday cake decorators at Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes.  It was an instant hit.  The Network tried to duplicate the magic a year later with Two Dudes Catering but the forced dialog and contrived tension between the owners did not resonate with viewers.  Though that copycat failed dozens have flourished like TLC’s Cake Boss, Planet Green’s Future Food, Private Chefs of Beverly Hills and the feel good mini-series The Chef Jeff Project.

A scant five years later and it appears this trend is petering out.  Just a few months ago Ace of Cakes wrapped it’s final show.  On March 3rd Food Network attempted to regain the glory of Ace with a new series about ice sculpting called Ice Brigade which features the same eye-popping creativity and a gaggle of cool characters headed by Chef Randy Finch.

Just before the premiere I spoke with Finch and asked him if Ice Brigade can do for ice sculpting what Ace of Cakes did for cake decorating?  He replied, “I tell you I really hope that it does.”  The ratings thus far have been fine but Ice does not appear to be creating the same buzz that Duff and the gang at Charmed City Cakes did when they first hit the airwaves.  This despite the fact that it is easily as entertaining in every way.

Also saying goodbye earlier this year was the Private Chefs of Beverly Hills, gone after just two seasons. PCOBH burst onto the scenes with a cast of chefs straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine (literally in the case of former model Manouschka Guerrier).  The blogosphere exploded with debates over whether the uber-demanding clients were real (they were) and proclamations as to who was everyone’s favorite chef.  They were the hottest caters in the nation by far.  Now PCOBH has gone its way like roman candles fizzing out.

The latest sign that the reality food show is waning is the recent premiere of SyFy’s new show Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen starring Chef Marcel Vigneron.  It would seem that a show about the hottest trend in food right now, molecular gastronomy, hosted by a Top Chef alum would be a cinch hit for a network that caters to the comic-con crowd.  After a tremendous media blitz the first episode failed to draw even one million viewers.  A paltry 600,000 according to TVbyTheNumbers.com.

Sasha Perl-RaverI asked PCOBH alum Sasha Perl-Raver her thoughts on the matter and she opined, “I think, if anything, reality cooking shows will only grow. The market is just starting to boom and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Next Great Restaurant might not be a hit, but Top Chef has spawned three spin offs, Masters, All-Stars and Just Desserts, Food Network gave birth to Cooking Channel.”

Sasha should know.  Not only did she star in a hit food reality show but she has also used her considerable connections in Hollywood to become a genuine TV trend spotter doing work as an entertainment reporter at NBC Universal and for SheKnows, LLC .  Sasha also maintains the very popular blog, Hollywood Bites.   So what’s her expert opinion?  “If anything, I think this is just the beginning.”

Sasha certainly knows her stuff.  While the numbers on behind-the-scenes reality food shows may be on the decline, reality food competitions are only becoming more popular.  Next Food Network Star is currently putting together its seventh season while Iron Chef America and Top Chef continue to capture ratings and both have generated popular spin-offs.  Chopped has gone from cult favorite to bona fide hit with this month’s special series, Chopped All-Stars which pits some of the network’s most popular chefs head-to-head for a $50,000 payday for the charity of their choice.  The numbers from the first two weeks were staggering as host Ted Allen recently revealed on his Facebook page, “Chopped All-Stars was the number one show on cable last Sunday: 6.3 million viewers!”

 

For more on Chopped All-Stars click HERE.

Chopped All-Stars was the number one show on cable last Sunday: 6.3 million viewers!

There’s More to Catering Than Selling in Bulk

The other day I was walking by an Applebee’s and I saw a sign in the window that read “Applebee’s Anywhere Catering.”  I thought, “Wow!  Applebee’s is catering?”  So I popped in to have a talk with their catering chef.  They didn’t have one.  I asked them about setting up a wet bar and on-site cooking for an event at a local park.  They don’t do that either.  They handed me a menu and said, “This is our catering menu.”  It was their regular menu only with larger portions and fewer options.  They don’t even deliver, you have to go pick it up yourself.  That’s not catering; that’s take-out.

KFC Catering is nothing of the sortTake a stroll by any of the soulless cookie cutter fern bars or worse a fast food joint and you’ll see advertisments that they now do catering.  This is a disturbing trend right now among the nation’s chain restaurants.  To start with they are lying to you, flat out lying to you.  Secondly it is demeaning to all of those actual caterers across the nation.  The service they provide goes far beyond large batch cooking.

In an article for HowStuffWorks.com Katherine Neer addresses catering by saying, “Food is definitely the star in the catering world, but it’s only one part of the equation.”   She quotes Chef Joel Dondis of Joel in New Orleans who defines catering as, “full event planning,” adding that, “food is no longer a focal point, but rather that it is part of a broader mission.”

If you have ever watched an episode of Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible or The Private Chefs of Beverly Hills that is catering.  Going where the customer wants, providing what the customer desires, cleaning up and heading out.  A box of 40 chicken wings thrown at you through a drive thru window is not catering.

Most foodies remember the bubbly Jyll Everman from season 7 of Food Network Star.  Jyll is the owner of Jyllicious Bites, a very popular catering company specializing in finger foods and hors d’œuvres in the LA area.  I spoke with her about what it’s like to be a caterer and her thoughts on the chain restaurant industry abusing the word “catering.”

How has the Recession effected your catering business?

The recession has definitely had an impact on catering, which honestly surprised me! I thought people would be giving up on entertaining at restaurants in favor of having events at their own home, but I have learned that many of my clients have turned to “pot-lucking” or having me do the main dishes while they supplemented the rest of the food. Also, with so many people struggling to find jobs, getting laid off or having a decrease in their income, people are not throwing the normal holiday parties, company BBQ’s, etc.

Has your appearance on FNS helped your catering business?

Jyll Everman of Jyllicious BitesYes, especially through the holidays! I was actually turning down work, hired a sous chef to be at the events I couldn’t make it to, etc. It was awesome! Although, I found so many people wanted to be in the kitchen to just talk to me (about the show) that it slowed my cooking down quite a bit! Thank goodness I am used to a lot of distractions in the kitchen (cameras, producers and former cast mates! Ha, ha.) so I am able to work through the distraction. After FNS, very few things stress me out anymore!

How do you define catering?

The technical definition is “to provide food or entertainment” but I feel it’s so much more than that. I want to provide a sense of relief to the client, that everything is under control (even if it’s not!) and I am there to make sure they enjoy their own party. I am also there to make sure EVERYONE is happy. If a vegetarian wanders in the kitchen starving because she has nothing to eat, I will make sure to cook her something before she even asks.

Do you have any thoughts on chain restaurants that call their large portion togo menus “catering?”

I will just politely say that catering is a full service job. There are 100 details that go into catering, and just because you put food in a disposable container to be picked up, I do not consider that catering. I offer “to-go” food on my menu as well and would never call it catering.

7 Questions with Natalie Slater

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

The world of food is filled with many colorful characters, most of whom sport personalities that are bigger than life.  There are ostentatious French chefs, food critics who wear disguises and even the odd food writer turned TV host.  All owe a certain amount of their fame to their inherent quirkiness.  Then there are the bloggers.

There are the Julie Powell’s who blog simply to bring the chaos of the modern world into focus and in so doing attain fame and fortune with a book followed by a movie.  Her name is now a verb.  EX: I’m going to start a blog about Popsicles and then I’m going to Julie Powell that sucker.  There are the Kamran Siddiqui’s who’s keen eye for food photography, gentle spirit and taste for exotic flavors have earned him a great deal of international notoriety; not bad for a high school student.  Who knows what the futures holds for this brilliant young man?

Natalie Slater on WannabeTVchef.comThen there is Natalie Slater of Chicago, a marketer by day and blogger by night.  Slater is unique, boisterous and infused with rock & roll intensity.  She owns no bakery, doesn’t work at a restaurant, has no fancy grand deplome from a stuffy French culinary academy.  What she does have, in addition to her sexcentric haircut and sleeves of ink, is an unapologetic sweet tooth.

Slater’s blog, Bake and Destroy, is an extension of her personality.  It is a hot pink and black leopard print of heavy metal cupcakery.  Just as Slater kicks in the door of the starched white world of baking with stiletto heels and fishnet stockings, B&D takes the light and delicate idea of dessert and straps it into the passenger seat of a ’67 Pontiac GTO, forces it to shotgun a Natty Light while outrunning the fuzz as Immortal blasts at an unhealthy volume.  Slater makes cake cool.

B&D is filled with recipes for Goth-themed pies and cupcakes brimming with sexual innuendo.  There is a call to arms to fight diseases, “Do you love cake, but hate cancer?”  And there are plenty of pictures of Slater modeling sexy and sassy aprons for her pals at Cupcake Provocateur.  It’s a horror picture with sprinkles and a chocolate pudding center.

Now that you have learned a little bit about the petit four pocket hottie now it’s time for her to answer 7 Questions:

1. How old were you when your self-proclaimed cake obsession started?

Natalie Slater on WannabeTVchef.comMy grandma bought me an EZ Bake Oven for my birthday one year – I’m guessing I was about four. My birthday is two weeks before Christmas and here was this little kid making everyone stop what they were doing to taste a cake she baked with a light-bulb. My gram suggested I bake one for baby Jesus’ birthday, and when it was done we left it out for him – it disappeared. I really believed he floated down and gobbled up the cake I made him. I guess I impressed myself at that point – Jesus likes my baking! From that point on my mom couldn’t bake so much as a blueberry muffin without me insisting on breaking the eggs or measuring the flour.

2. When did you start your blog, Bake and Destroy?

I started Bake and Destroy over four years ago when my son was newborn and I was working as a nanny. I was home all the time and baked to keep my sanity. The blog was a way for me to keep in touch with my friends – none of which had kids yet. I never imagined anyone besides those few people would read it.

3. You were a judge in the pilot episode of Cupcake Wars.  Can we expect to see you in future episodes?

I really doubt it. Originally they wanted me to compete and I told them they were nuts. 1000 cupcakes? No way dude! Then one night I had my son in the tub and one of the producers called me. She was like, “Natalie, this is boring, we need you.” I flew out the next morning. Unfortunately they felt the need to cover up all my tattoos for the show – no one knows why! One of the contestants had tons of tattoos! Anyway I just felt sweaty and uncomfortable, it was a bummer. I’d do it again if they asked on the condition that I can wear short sleeves. I’m from Chicago – it’s hot in LA!

4. I’m a savory guy so I am a little perplexed by the sheer volume of cake decorating shows on television.  To what do you attribute their phenomenal success?

Natalie Slater on Wannabe TV ChefI think, like tattoo shows, it’s a peek into a world that has existed forever but not many people were involved in. In the same vein, you get to watch people do things that you yourself may never be able to do. I do think they can move on now, though. I’m looking forward to Just Desserts- the pastry competition on Bravo. I’m ready for flavor to matter again.

5. Other than Cupcake Wars what cake shows do you enjoy?

I love Cake Boss. I think Sunshine is an unsung hero on that show, she’s so talented. And I’m Italian, so I can relate to all the yelling and hand waving.
It’s not a cake show, but one of my favorite pastry chefs Ben Roche has a show on Planet Green called Future Food. The stuff they do at Moto blows my mind.

6. So which would you rather have a cake decorated like a tattoo or a tattoo of a cake?

A cake tattoo! I’ve noticed that tattoo artists can render a great looking cake tattoo but cake artists aren’t so hot at tattoo cakes.

7. Your look, your personality and even your blog scream personality; what inspires you?

Well thank you. I have been told I burst from the womb shouting “Hey everyone! Look at me!” I draw from so many places – my beautiful city, my fearless son, all the classy TV shows I grew up on like pro wrestling, Married with Children and Headbangers Ball. My friends and family are a huge inspiration, I’m always looking to make them laugh or to embarrass them. So it’s easy- endless inspiration.

Review: Substitute Yourself Skinny

For many Americans the battle of the bulge is predicated on the fact that diet food tastes nasty. Those pre-portioned pseudo-meals shipped directly to your door are not only dreadful tasting but processed to the point you can’t really call it food.  They may make your tummy smaller but they wreak havoc on your liver, pancreas, heart, kidneys, et al.  Nothing that tastes bad is good for you.  After all your taste buds are as much a part of your body as your abs and glutes.  Why abuse them?

Susan Irby on Wannabe TV ChefSusan Irby has made her career by designing foods that fit what she calls “the Bikini lifestyle.”  It is an approach that has earned her the nickname the Bikini Chef.  Often identified as spa food, her style features healthy, local, sustainable ingredients prepared with sophistication.  But Irby’s food also has comfort and that’s what makes her healthy fare so satisfying.

Susan’s latest book is her best offering to date of figure-flattering flavors.  Substitute Yourself Skinny (Adams Media, 2010) includes 175 super-slimming recipes and dozens of gorgeous color photos.  This is one diet book that deserves serious food porn props!  Irby’s previous books include $7 Healthy Meals (read review) and $7 Quick and Easy Meals (read review) as well as Cooking with Susan, Southern Family Favorites.  All are available at amazon.com.  For more on Irby check out my exclusive interview from earlier this year.

The true voodoo of Substitute Yourself Skinny is not that Susan takes great, time-tested recipes that are packed with flavor and substitutes one or two high fat or high calorie ingredients for healthier alternatives while maintaining the soul of the dish.  No, the real magic is that Susan teaches you how to do it yourself.

Despite what the mail-order meal people would have you think, the path to getting that Bikini body is through your kitchen.  There is no such thing as a healthy diet that does not involve fresh ingredients cooked from scratch.  If cooking for yourself sounds horrific then what you eat is not the source of your excess tonnage, your laziness is.

Irby addresses this by making her recipes easy and quick.  First she starts you off with a shopping list of the staples needed for eating healthy and cooking quickly.  Then she offers recipes like I’m Feeling Lazy Lasagna and others engineered for that busy family on the go.

Susan Irby the Bikini ChefFinally, and most astonishingly, Irby has filled the pages of Substitute Yourself Skinny with foods you actually like and even crave: Creme de la Creme Cream of Broccoli Soup, Cinnamon Raisin Waffles, Not So Scalloped Potatoes, Biscuits and Gravy, Cajun Red Beans and Rice, I Love New York Cheesecake, Slidin’ Home BBQ Sliders, Sausage Pizza, Banana-rama Banana Pudding Cake and Fudgy Chocolate Brownies to name just a few.

Each delicious recipe is accompanied by a calorie count, serving size and nutritional breakdown.  Scattered throughout you will find helpful bits of information the author calls Skinny Secrets.  As mentioned before the photographs are stunningly clean and colorful.

Check back tomorrow to see how you can get your very own copy of Substitute Yourself Skinny for FREE!

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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