I don’t *dislike* food TV, even though I’ve published things about Jamie Oliver behaving like a rock star, and devoted several years to being one of its critics. In fact, one of the reasons I care about it at all is that I deeply value food and cooking, and I’ve long been curious and intrigued about the seemingly sudden spell (since circa 1990s) it’s managed to cast on popular attention spans.
Chef’s Table is one of the shows that I, like many others, have been entranced by, following Mind of a Chef, narrated by the late, great, much-missed Anthony Bourdain. These forays into the foodie (ugh!) zeitgeist were a bit like the appearance of Lucky Peach magazine, which seemed to tap into something cool and slightly countercultural, like wholewheat bread in the heyday of mass-produced Wonder Bread: zeitgeist in the way of a knowing public, but cool and counter in the way of something original thanks to that knowing. Both of these shows celebrate(d) that uniqueness both in content and format.
But, like the commodification of organic food, and like the eventual demise of Lucky Peach, Chef’s Table has become… boring. Normal. Uninteresting. Or is it just me? The latest season features Dario Cecchini and Sean Brock, both of whom I’m otherwise a great fan of (and I’m certainly not uninterested in being introduced to chefs who I wasn’t aware of before, like Mashama Bailey and Asma Khan, also featured in this latest season, or the lovely Niki Nakayama in season 1).
So, yes, maybe it’s me who’s jaded. Particularly as the Sean Brock episode contains some extremely personal information about his (past) difficulties with drinking, and a health problem which almost cost him his eyesight. And in the wake of Bourdain’s suicide, #MeToo, and the sharing of other stories about addiction from famously “large” personalities – all of which are certainly important contributions to increased transparency about poor and unacceptable behaviour in the hospitality industry – perhaps such a story is perfectly representative of the 2019 zeitgeist, which only an asshole would complain about.
My boredom isn’t about Brock’s story, which I still admire and respect, as I do Cecchini’s, involving a boy who desperately wanted to become a vet, but ended up as a world-famous butcher/cook.
Maybe I’m bored because there’s just too much now, and recycled formats don’t capture the attention as effectively in a cacophony. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, I suppose – how many “season 12” of your favourite TV show really manage to still impress?
The exquisite problem with the Attention Economy is that consumers like me get to behave like spoiled brats when not sufficiently entertained – because we have to make important choices about where to spend our precious, limited attention! – while producers, directors, and subjects like Sean Brock have to gamble with our fickleness in a game that’s ultimately rigged. Which is sad, really – Chef’s Table is arguably better than a lot of the other shit out there. But, look, here’s a video of cats playing table tennis!