10 Questions for Geoffrey Drummond

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Food and cooking shows are relatively—at least so far—inexpensive to produce. No big casts, no screenplays, limited locations, simple sets, and even in the world of celebrity chefdom, pretty modest talent costs.

GL: Are you surprised by the success of food TV, supporting two networks with countless others having their own shows?

GD: No…I’m actually surprised that the “food & cooking” category hasn’t evolved into sitcoms and episodics, since the subject matter has become so popular. (Lower production costs could be a part of that, as I mentioned earlier.) But the subject matter is really just an extension of the people—cooks and culinary adventurers—working in the category.

Like music, we’ve tapped into a great reservoir of terrific and appealing talent whom we enjoy watching do something we ourselves aspire to do. This is quite different from cops, lawyers, and doctors, whom we don’t aspire to be but we like watching the scripted dramas fictionalized and played out with actors, because the real cops and lawyers do not have the dramatic ability to act out the fictions created for them.

GL: What is your view of the reality food shows? Do you like or dislike any in particular?

GD: Are Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen reality shows? Not much reality there—but lots of drama. Aren’t they all really about the “joy of victory” and the “agony of defeat”? We love seeing people triumph over the odds, and we also seem to love basking in people’s misery and ineptness, as well as misfortune. I also believe that it captures the possibility of upward mobility—becoming rich and famous, in this case a celebrity chef. It is easier to relate to becoming a great cook for the average person than being a basketball star, or recording a hit record, or starting a hedge fund—things you have to be born with or to. It feels like it is about merit and hard work, not natural athleticism or musical talent or coming from a place of high social access. I think that’s why casting is often skewed to mass-appeal contestants rather than anyone who might seem elitist (unless they are set up as the foil, to root against).

GL: How has technology and the expansion of the food world affected food shows on television? Do you show more or less? Assume more on the part of the viewer?

GD: Well, there certainly are more shows. And many more people interested in learning about, or should I say watching, food, from sourcing to cooking to eating. But audiences are still mostly interested in watching their favorite (or soon-to-be) hosts involved with food. They like the drama and magic, when it happens, of great cooking, but mostly are interested in vicarious eating. So fewer shows seem to be about “how to cook” and more seem to be about “the challenges of cooking,” or “I’m not the only one who messes up in the kitchen!”; and “adventures in eating—see and eat it all!”

Interestingly, new technologies are enabling you to see it all and learn how to cook it all as well. The iPad apps we are developing at CulinApp combine the best of how-to-cook TV video and complete recipe books that teach cooking on a one-to-one basis for those interested in learning, so they are much more than either e-cookbooks or cooking TV shows. The first one out is Dorie Greenspan’s Baking with Dorie; following that will be Pasta with Giuliano Hazan.

People have often asked: If so many people watch cooking shows, why don’t they cook more? One of the reasons often cited (I never believed it) was that you couldn’t watch and cook, because the TV wasn’t in the kitchen, and no matter how long a recipe took to cook, the show was always 25 minutes long. That’s no longer the case, and with these new apps, you can customize the instruction to your own familiarity and learning style. The apps are so interactive that it’s like having a cooking coach in the kitchen with you. Inspired by TV, instructed by app.

GL: Can you predict how TV cooking shows will look in the future? More reality-based, or will TV kitchen sets always have a place?

GD: Who could have predicted gourmet food trucks or pop-up patisseries? To me, Julia Child and America’s Test Kitchen are more “reality”-based than Top Chef. I do think food travel/adventure and culinary know-how, as opposed to cooking skill, will inhabit more and more of the food-TV landscape as a larger audience chooses to watch these shows. And those bigger audiences will justify increased advertising revenues, which will pay for shows like this, which cost more to produce than studio how-to. And, as I said above, more and more kitchen instruction will move to the Web and to apps.

GL: Do you have a favorite TV chef today? If so, what attracts you to their show?

GD: My favorite TV chef is Eric Ripert, whose show I produce and direct. He is a deeply talented, knowledgeable, capable, charming, honorable, and humble person who has great respect for what he cooks and how he cooks it. He brings an honesty and integrity to the food he cooks and the craft he works at, and he is able to articulate this in a direct, refreshing, and non-B.S. manner. I love working with Eric, and not a day in production passes where I don’t learn something or several things about cooking and eating, as well as have lots of laughs and fun packed into some life lessons.

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