Stay Tuned: ‘Food Network Star’ is an entertaining branding exercise
By Melissa Crawley
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“Food Network Star,” now in its 10th season, is one long job interview. Twelve contestants compete in weekly cooking based challenges where they are judged and eliminated by three of the network’s current stars: Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and Alton Brown. The winner, chosen by the viewers, gets a show on the network. But really, the winner is marketing, because food has very little to do with it.
The hook of “Food Network Star” is that you’re invited to the interview as a fellow employer, and since you can’t taste the food that your prospective new employee is cooking for you, you vote on how likeable they are. The fact that “Food Network Star” has been on for 10 seasons (or that the network exists in the first place), is a testament to the odd nature of TV cooking. Success as a TV chef has everything to do with branding yourself and next to nothing to do with how good your food tastes. Being a good cook is a bonus. Being a mediocre one is not a deal breaker.
“Food Network Star” understands this, so the cooking that happens during the challenges is practically a distraction. The judges have little to say beyond liking and disliking a dish. Their focus is on how well the contestants impress them in challenges that include performing in a live cooking demonstration in front of a large crowd, starring in a commercial promoting a food product they create and testing their social networking skills by filming an Internet marketing video. Giada’s main role seems to be modeling at least two dress changes while flashing her toothy smile as much as possible. Alton sticks to his signature tough love sarcasm. Bobby alternates between disinterested boredom and mildly interested amusement.
But the judges, like the food, are not what make the show watchable. As with most reality shows, it’s about the contestants. Quirky, eccentric, whiny, controversial, haters, sweethearts — whatever their quality is, manufactured or not, they know to bring it or risk an early exit. And these potential stars of Food Network are no exception. There’s a chuck wagon, cowboy cook in full western-wear, a sassy butcher from the south and a former pageant queen with a flair for the dramatic. As others this season have learned, it’s not enough to be a good looking guy with an Italian accent. You have to be a good looking guy with an Italian accent who knows how to work the camera. Leaving the final decision to the audience is smart publicity, but it also recognizes how much personality trumps culinary skill even on a network with food in the title.
Food Network representatives do make a few appearances at the judges’ table to lend the competition weight and credibility. They are fond of telling the contestants they need a “point of view,” which is a polite way to say they need to understand their brand and how to pitch it to viewers. They represent the essence of what this series is — an entertaining exercise in branding. From its start with larger than life personality Emeril Lagasse, Food Network has never been about the cooking and neither has its stars.
“Food Network Star” is on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT on Food Network.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.