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How Culinary Shows Take the Joy Out Of Cooking -- Even In France

Essay: The most recent trend in cooking shows combines two well-tested television formulas: reality TV and sports. But a French philosopher argues that by emphasizing competition shows like “Hell’s Kitchen,” and “Master Chef,” a French equivalent, the bea

Scene from
Scene from
Robert Redeker


PARIS -- "Master Chef!" "An Almost-Perfect Dinner!" Cooking is invading the public space on a daily basis. In addition to shows depicting meal preparation, there are hundreds of culinary-related blogs popping up on the web. This strange phenomenon forces us to ask two questions: What is the point? Does our society not spend too much time on food already?

Television has been approaching the culinary arts with two well-proven, hit-producing formulas: reality television and sports. Most programs combine the two approaches by creating a competition between "real people." These new cooking shows take their cues from reality TV. What could be more "real" then a couple of your fellow humans fussing over the stove?

Television ingests reality – the famous real people, the man-on-the-street interviews –and kneads it, debones it, and presents it in such a way that viewers won't vomit all over the screen, sick from the clearly manufactured authenticity. It is quite obviously an impostor: Reality presented in such a way is nothing more than a product destined to be thrown away to make room for something new tomorrow.

Parody of the Eucharist

By establishing competition, television has betrayed the essence of the culinary arts, its ability to cement friendships and strengthen ties between fellow human beings. But in "Master Chef," the French equivalent of "Hell's Kitchen" – just like in "An Almost Perfect Dinner," where ordinary people prepare food on-camera and compete with others in their town, television places value on the competition, not the food. In transforming food into a spectacle, the beauty of cuisine is destroyed. "Master Chef" celebrates the cult of celebrity and the law of the strongest. In the process, it violently brings the culinary arts into territory governed by the barbaric maxim, "Man is his own greatest enemy."

The extravagantly inappropriate place of food in our culture is nothing other than a symptom of a sick society, "a spin-off society," as the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis said. That means that food is experienced, in an imaginary way, as the last realm of stability in a world that is falling apart. Sitting around a table, the illusion of community can temporarily be reestablished. Gathered around recipes, around different ways of eating, you can almost imagine yourself communicating with a whole civilization – which then gives way to an unconscious parody of the Eucharist.

Television multiplies this illusion to infinity, by giving a cooking show the same status as a soccer or rugby game. "Master Chef" and other hit cooking shows attract millions of people and trick them into believing that the lost community continues to survive. Cuisine masquerades as the anecdote to the crisis of meaning.

Food's ascendance and its lethal exploitation by the media reveal a real social affliction. The role it plays – the ghost of true purpose – is the proof. True lovers of food and all of its pleasures look askance at all of this hype. They know that true cuisine does not have stakes, that it is neither a spectacle, nor a competition, and certainly not the last, boiled-down drop of meaning or national culture. In fact, it is because food is free of these parasites that it can aspire to the true adage of the old Heraclitus: "The gods are also present in food."

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