Cooking shows are becoming more and more popular. But while people love to watch shows like "Top Chef," they don't actually go into their own kitchens to chop, boil or bake. Food writer Michael Pollan talks about how the rise in TV food shows has turned cooking into a spectator sport.
Watch a video of Spike battle it out with a fellow contestant on Top Chef.
[Open with sound of Julia Child cooking show]
Amy Holmes for The Takeaway: That was the legendary Julia Child of course, cooking it old school with all of the good stuff. In this segment we’re joined by the renowned writer about food and the business of food, Michael Pollan. Michael has a story in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the rise of cooking shows and the curious decline of cooking at home. Michael is the author of a raft of hugely popular books including “In Defense of Food.” Michael welcome to The Takeaway.
Michael Pollan: Thank you Amy, good to be here.
Amy Holmes: Terrific. So you say that Top Chef and Who Wants to Be Food TV’s Next Cooking Star [actual title of show is “The Next Food Network Star”] are actually taking Americans out of the kitchen and in front of the television. It seems sort of counter-intuitive I suppose.
Michael Pollan: Well, they’re very different shows than Julia Child. Julia Child was more about empowering you and giving you the courage to cook something as intimidating as French haute cuisine. These other shows are really about watching other people do it because they unfold so quickly. I mean it’s more like watching a sports event when you watch Top Chef. And you would never, you learn nothing, it goes by way too fast.
Amy Holmes: We have an example of that. Spike from Season Four of Top Chef, let’s take a listen.
[audio of Spike with music… “I was just like boom, boom, boom, I was attacking my prep work. And that’s how I am as a chef. So it was nice to show some people, hey listen I’m here to compete, I’m here to do the best and I’m right on the money with all of that”]
Amy Holmes: Michael, is that even cooking that sounds more like war fare?
Michael Pollan: Well, it’s ESPN actually. It’s exactly like a post game or pre-game interview on ESPN.
John Hockenberry: With a Pilates soundtrack, it sounds like.
Michael Pollan: Exactly, and you know that’s how they’re designed. They’re very well-produced shows. I find them very entertaining I have to say, but it’s not about cooking. It’s about cooking as a spectator sport. What’s interesting is that cooking should be a subject of a spectator sport that people want to watch. And the paradox that I try to deal with in the article is that why are we so eager to watch cooking on TV yet so not eager to do it ourselves because the number of Americans who cook is in steady decline.
John Hockenberry: Really, it’s declining?
Michael Pollan: Oh yeah, you hear lots about cooking and it has a lot of cultural prestige as an activity but nobody’s really doing it. Only 58 percent of meals in America are cooked at home, but if you look at the definition of cooking it’s pretty mild. Anything involving assembly of ingredients qualifies as cooking. In other words, making a sandwich is cooking.
Amy Holmes: Exactly, that sounds very familiar to me. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve cooked a single meal in like the past three weeks, unless you count pouring cereal into a bowl and adding milk.
John Hockenberry: Michael, actually do you have a recipe for bowling an egg for Amy, she was talking about that this morning.
Amy Holmes: For a single person especially cooking is a lot of work, it’s really expensive and you just want to go to a restaurant where they’ll get it right and they’ll clean the dishes. Isn’t that reasonable?
Michael Pollan: Well I don’t think it’s more expensive than going to a restaurant but you know look, we have so many reasons to not cook these days. We’re really busy and we’re tempted by a food industry that tells us “why bother, we’ll do it for you, we’re happy to do it for you.”
John Hockenberry: But what’s gonna happen. You grew up on Julia Child. I grew up on Graham Kerr, the galloping gourmet. And they all opened the door to people like us to actually do cooking and you say cooking is in decline and does Top Chef single the decline of an era?
Michael Pollan: Yeah, I think well, it’s a transformation. Is cooking leaving the kitchen and the wherever you keep your TV room. But there still are a few really good shows that teach you how to cook. The America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, you actually can learn how to cook. But, by and large, I worry that cooking is dying and the reason I worry is not out of some sentimental reason but because we know that people who cook eat better then people who go out all the time.
John Hockenberry: I’ve got one hopeful bit of news for both of you on that. My 10-year olds, they cook like crazy and they love Top Chef. Go figure.
Michael Pollan: Well, I think that, John there’s a big hope in that. My son, I have a 16-year-old too and he watches these shows and he does like to cook. In fact, he just spent a summer working in a kitchen and so there is a new generation, perhaps, for whom cooking is kind of cool and one of the things that these shows are doing is elevating it’s prestige as something, especially that boys can do. It’s not girl’s work anymore and that I think I take some hope in that development. So your kids, I think, are part of a trend for this generation. Let’s hope that that develops into something real.
Amy Holmes: And I can add that I don’t cook and I don’t watch TV cooking shows so there you go.
John Hockenberry: We are gonna teach Amy how to cook Michael.
Michael Pollan: I think that’s a great idea.
Amy Holmes: Michael thanks so much for joining us and you can read his piece coming out in The New York Times Magazine. That was food writer and activist, author of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma."