thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Food Network Star, Branding, and Ethnic Entrapment

In Food, race, reality TV, Television on May 16, 2012 at 8:38 am

Chelsea H.

I love the Food Network, and I watch a lot of their shows. I use their website for recipes and for inspiration, and I am hooked on many of their brands of “reality” TV. I can’t get enough of “Chopped,” I am a devoted fan of both The Next Food Network Star and The Next Iron Chef, and recently Taylor and I watched Worst Cooks in America together. In the past year or two, I have been delighted to see new types of food show up on the Food Network website (i.e. more than grilled sandwiches, Italian specialties, and Emeril’s mix of Cajun/French/Louisiana fare). I am excited to try these new styles of food: Mexican food, Indian food, even some gluten free options. Things I’ve never made before but have eaten with utter gusto in restaurants.

But then I started looking at who was making these foods, and I noticed something that bothers me: the way the network seems, in the cases of non-white and non-black chefs, to match the ethnicity of food with the ethnicity of the host preparing it. This tickled me with significance on and off, and I’d almost forgotten about it, in fact, until Melissa’s post on the problems with ANTM’s representations of racial/ethnic identity (given the approaching end of my graduate studies and impending dissertation defense, this post has been in production for a while now…). Like ANTM’s racial stereotyping, the Food Network seems to be pigeon-holing its “ethnic” stars.

Last season on The Next Food Network Star (henceforth NFNS), a contestant named Susie Jimenez wanted to cook dressed-up, gourmet-at-home food. When the judging committee (Bobby Flay, Bob Tuschman [Food Network GM] and Susie Fogelson [Food Network Marketing VP]) asked about her heritage, she basically said, “Yes, I’m Mexican, but I also like sushi, and I like crepes, and I like risotto.” Why, she was asking, must I bracket myself into a single category based on my ethnic identity or my birthplace? Susie was born in Mexico, came to the US with her family, and went to culinary school. At school, she learned how to make many types of food and had both technical and creative expertise. But rather than being praised for her expertise in a wide range of cuisines, she was criticized for her desire to cook a variety of foods – outside those dishes associated with her heritage.

Susie Jimenez Finalist Season 7 Next Food Star

Susie Jimenez (courtesy of Food Network)

The judges told Susie that she should go back to her roots for the food she should really be cooking. They accused her on several occasions of being “embarrassed” about her own culture. The first time she made anything remotely Mexican, she was praised and told that this was HER food. This was HER niche. As though, by virtue of being Mexican, food we associate with Mexico or Latin American cooking came naturally to her: somehow she must be able to tap into her ethic-ness for an ‘authentic taste.’ Forced into cooking only Mexican food, and forced into an identity that was part but not all of her, she sailed along in the competition and, in fact, almost won. (She finally lost to a guy named Jeff Mauro who, despite his Italian heritage, looked essentially Caucasian and later created a show entirely dependent upon sandwiches.)

This is not just female phenomenon either. Another NFNS contestant – Herb Mesa – came to the show interested in making healthy food exciting and delicious. He had trouble in front of the camera and with his food UNTIL! Until the week he returned to his “roots” by cooking something with Hispanic flavors. His sample pilot show was titled “Cooking con Sabor,” which incorporated his desire to cook food with strong flavors, and didn’t necessarily contradict his desire to be healthy, but it did change the focus, placing the show’s “theme,” if we can call it that, squarely on his ethnic heritage.*

Herb Mesa (courtesy of Food Network)

These examples of ethnic insistence got me thinking about the previous year’s winner. Food blogger and all-around sweetheart Aarti Sequeira came into the show already happily soldered to her Indian identity. She hadn’t always known she was going to be immersed in the food world, but she knew who she was in terms of her cultural background. All her food – at least everything she presented on the show – was pulled from deep family roots: she branded herself as an expert in relatable, homestyle Indian cooking.

aarti sequeira the next food network star season 6

Aarti Sequeira (courtesy of Food Network)

So when Aarti made her Mum’s lentils, or explained that curry wasn’t a stale yellow powder but a method of mixture, or how to put together your own spice blends, it seemed very natural and joyful. Once she got past some struggles with self-confidence, she excelled with the judges. Because she was happy and comfortable with the food that matched her heritage, and because she had apparently actively chosen to specialize in Indian cuisine, it seemed neither unusual nor problematic to me that the show she was awarded upon winning was about Indian home cooking.

But then I started following her blog. Aarti was already an established food blogger with a healthy following by the time she auditioned for NFNS. She did a combination of food writing, cute how-to videos, and random variety-show-esque plays with friends including parodies of beat poetry and off-the-cuff ukulele performances. Her description on her blog is of an internet cooking show that “takes viewers on a playful romp through her tiny Los Angeles kitchen, where her childhood in Dubai, her Indian heritage and her culinary coming-of-age in California are braided together into budget-friendly, quick and easy recipes every week.” When you look at a list of Aarti’s recipes on her blog, there is variety. There are recipes for baked samosas and Kulfi pops, yes, but there are also bread puddings and chili and roasted root vegetables. The blog really does reflect the mix of cultures Aarti advertises, which is great. She may be of Indian heritage, but her childhood in one country and adult life in another contribute to who she is and how she cooks.

That sounds great, doesn’t it?! A fresh and interesting take on fusion food that draws from individual experience, attached to multiple places and intersecting identities. But her show on Food Network – at least the way it is advertised on TV – obscures this diverse and dynamic background. According to the network, she is only one thing: Indian. And she cooks Indian food. Whether that means adding “Indian” spices to hot dogs or making saag paneer from scratch, it equates to the same thing. It leaves her bracketed into a category determined by her ethnicity, whether she wants to be there or not: Aarti = Indian home cooking.*

And it’s not just that. One of the first critiques about Aarti’s show from commenters on the Food Network website was that her food was so simplistic, so dumbed down, that it included things like chopped up hot dogs in savory sauce. Even the recipes that look like authentic Indian food are called things like “Mum’s Everyday Red Lentils” or, weirdly, “Indian Omelet.” My theory: the Food Network thought that an American audience might be intimidated by recipes or titles that are “too ethnic,” and therefore Aarti’s food has to look just exotic enough: familiar ingredients or friendly, funny names for dishes that will taste just a little spicier or a little different. It’s Indian food, Food Network style: a whitewashed version (in some cases) of Indian cuisine that dislocates it from Aarti’s lived experiences and also its intersections with California/LA, family, and India and Dubai.

This becomes particularly relevant now that the latest, revamped version of Food Network Star (they’ve dispensed with the “Next” part from previous seasons) has started. More on my thoughts about that, and its presentation of women, and the shows I think it is borrowing from (The Voice, for one) after I’ve had a chance to watch a few more episodes. But I want to think for a moment about how this phenomenon I’m describing has already woven its way into the new season.

There is one Hispanic contestant on this season’s show: a woman named Martita Jara who has a passion for Mexican home cooking, drawing on her experiences with her mother and her culture. This is great. Nowhere here, I want to stress, am I concerned or disappointed about people who want to express their own backgrounds strongly. Nowhere do I want to suggest that people should not represent themselves through the food they grew up with.  If they want to. That is the key. The problem is the way the network demands they represent themselves: as singular. As one-trick ponies bound by ethnic heritage. During Sunday night’s premiere episode, Giada called Martita “my fiery Latin girl” or similar several times as a complete description. That was it! No additional explanation, no discussion of what drives her or who else she might be. And maybe, since that is the way Martita seemed to represent herself, that’s okay. But it still leaves me asking: if these are to be stars – true experts in food – is it a good idea to restrict them to a single category, and (when) is it a problem for that category to be determined by ethnicity? Looking at her bio on Food Network’s website, I just learned that Martita went to culinary school and that she’s a newlywed who loves to entertain. None of these elements that make up her experience were represented in the show. Just her status as a Latina.

Martita Jara (courtesy of Food Network)

As Aarti’s, Susie’s, and maybe Martita’s experiences show, popular TV programs seem to demand that cooks with backgrounds that mainstream American culture considers “ethnic” (i.e. not white) cook food from their own ethnic identity. But there is one big exception to this rule, and it has to do with what we might call “passing”: hosts with ethnic identities – proud, strong identities – who look white.

There are a LOT of Food Network personalities who identify as Italian. Giada de Laurentiis, Mario Batali (from back in the early days), the aforementioned Jeff Mauro, Guy Fieri – even Rachael Ray talks about her Italian heritage all the time. While Susie Jimenez is soldered to Mexican food and Aarti Sequeira remains all but closed within her spice cabinet, Giada makes Greek food, modern California cuisine, and original-sounding comfort food. Yes, she often infuses whatever she makes with Italian flair, but she also transcends her roots even while promoting them.

Rachael Ray, on the other hand, makes any kind of food, served in enormous portions with as many pun-riddled names as she can invent. She insists on calling that one delectable nutty chalky variety of cheese Parrrmijano-Reggiano even though she pronounces everything else in a slightly-New-York-tinged American accent. She prepares burgers, and “sammies,” and nachos, and Greek salads, and ice cream sundaes, and chili, and pasta, and chicken, and… everything, really. But she talks about her Italian roots all the time. Why has she been permitted to step out from the umbrella of her heritage?

Jeff Mauro makes sandwiches of all kinds, not just panini. Guy Fieri makes everything – Asian fusion, barbecue, cocktails – as long as it’s overdone in some way: crazy name, crazy size, crazy spice, crazy presentation. Why are they not cooking the foods their distant country of origin says they should be?

The answer, I think, is that these chefs read as white in a way Susie and Aarti do not. Italian ethnicity, like Irish ethnicity, is one that has been largely assimilated into the category of “white” while maintaining some distinct cultural traditions. Indian and Mexican identities, however, remain considered non-white. Of course, there are African American hosts on Food Network too, but they seem to be released from the mandate to display racial identity in their food the same way the white hosts are. It is curious that when members of ethnic groups that are neither black nor white are represented on food programs, they are represented on the basis of their heritage. If their primary culinary interest happens to deviate from “who they are” ethnically, their shows demand that they change. I can’t help but wonder whether this deals with nationality as well as ethnicity: if black and white cooks are subconsciously considered more “American” and therefore have more access to the diverse range of styles bubbling in the giant (melting) stock-pot of American culture.* People marked as ethnically and therefore nationally “other,” however, no matter how long they have been American, are expected to prepare “exotic” food from their own far-away lands. Aarti and Susie were born “elsewhere,” and so in addition to their ethnic heritage, they also have a national heritage that is markedly different from White America.

Obviously this is a reductive and over-simplified form of diversity, focusing on rigid categorization rather than acknowledging intersecting identities, and commenters’ early critiques of Aarti point to the specific type of reductiveness: she must be just exotic enough, cooking food that sounds Indian but isn’t scary for an American pantry or palate.

I’m not sure why food programs are playing out this way. But the fact remains that chefs with visibly non-white and non-black identities are being pigeon-holed—perhaps because network executives believe it will be easier to market them that way. (At least, until they have been safely commoditized.) Clearly, this kind of oversimplification is unfair to the talented chefs who come to the Food Network – and unfair to viewers of all backgrounds on the other side of the screen: if Aarti can make such a fantastic saag paneer (and she can, I’ve tried it), imagine what she might be able to do with pasta! I want to find out. Her talent lies in her brain and her heart and her fingertips, not (only) in her ethnic, national, or racial identity.

* Three notes:

1.) I must admit, more recent additions to Aarti’s recipe repertoire do include things not as “Indian” as I’ve portrayed here. Aarti now, similar to her blog, has recipes like fish tacos on her Food Network profile. This is, if I’m remembering correctly, a development from more recent seasons, after her show was renewed. Perhaps she is now a safe commodity for the network, so it’s okay for her to branch out a bit.

2.) Herb Mesa, though he didn’t win the competition, wrote for Food Network on a blog called “The Energy Chef,” which incorporated Latin flavors but switched his focus back to health and fitness. He hasn’t written there since the end of 2010, which seems to indicate lack of popularity from viewers, but I’m not certain about that.

3.) This season, there are two African American chefs on Food Network Star: Malcolm Mitchell and Judson Allen. As Malcolm made his first presentation to the judges, he explained exactly what I am trying to capture here, and his response confused the judges. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) “I make food with soul, but not necessarily soul food.” His explanation was a bit more long-winded than that, but I think what he was trying to do was indicate his passion without pigeon-holing himself into a category of cuisine. The judges told him his point of view seemed “all over the place” but that his food tasted delicious. This is, given the way the show seems to like entrapping hosts within a single strict category, something to watch out for in future episodes. Will Malcolm be allowed to continue to cook the way he wants to, or will the judges try to shift him toward the category of Soul Food to which he does not want to be restricted?

  1. Chelsea, thanks so much for this extremely thoughtful piece. The points you bring up are some that I’ve noticed in the past but haven’t articulated as thoroughly or as well as you do here. It is interesting how this seems to be an issue for cooks whose identities fall outside the primary black-white racial binary. However, it seems that even though they might make American-style cuisine, black Food Network cooks seem limited to that repertoire, and as you note with the example of Malcolm Mitchell, their cuisine is very often framed in that “soul food” vein. While Bobby and Alton get to scour the world for flavors and methods, I’m not sure that their black counterparts have as much leeway in sharing styles outside of what seems closest to the American palate. This doesn’t seem to be the case with TOP CHEF, although there are certainly some issues with that as well. Again, thanks so much for your insights!

  2. […] Chelsea H. examines the Food Network’s treatment of ethnicity, race, and cultural cuisines in “Food Network Star, Branding, and Ethnic Entrapment.” […]

  3. I don’t watch much television, but was watching this program because I watched an episode and really liked Susie Martinez (her bubbly personality; zeal and zest for working with food). When I watch it is mostly cooking, gardening and home improvement programs, my news comes by way of NPR.
    I was very upset that she seemed to be “pigeon-holed” into cooking “Mexican” dishes. There were already programs on that network featuring “Mexican Cuisine”. I didn’t see where she would fit.
    The greatest disappointment for me was that she came second to someone who did not “shine” as she did. The past winners of the competition, from what I understand, have all been people with star qualities (unique personalities); they usually have a certain, je ne sais quoi.
    I really enjoy watching Guy Fieri, used to watch Giada (been busy). I wonder if the winner was chosen more for his “ethnicity”, (subconciously!!!?)
    I don’t get it!

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