Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 11:15 AM |
In this age of image and celebrity, everything on TV cooking programs has to look good, from the delectable morsels on the plate to the chefs themselves.
The early 1990s marked the debut of private TV stations in Indonesia, bringing with them a steady diet of programs from abroad. Among them were a few foreign cooking shows, including Yan Can Cook with Martin Yan.
The garrulous Chinese-American’s trademark TV characteristic was his quaint butchering of the English language. But his job was to work his wok, not to be the crème de la crème in personal presentation or looks.
Almost 20 years later, the TV culinary landscape, here and internationally, is a whole new world. People everywhere, including here in Indonesia, are devouring reality food programs on TV, especially on cable channels devoted to food.
Particular social factors are shaping the popularity of food programs in Indonesia, according to writer and foodie Bondan Winarno. For one, he says, such programs satisfy a need in urban areas, where members of two-income households rarely get to sit down for a meal together because of busy schedules and traffic congestion, and where few maids can cook well.
The ever-rising number of eateries offering the cuisines of different regions of Indonesia also attests to a growing appreciation for food, he says.
“I also think that reality TV programs about food have become entertaining news programs enjoyed by a public that is bored by news that is confusing and sometimes annoying,” he adds.
The trend has also led to the phenomenon of the TV celebrity chef. Yan still can cook, but he is small potatoes compared with his higher-profile colleagues on the small screen.
We know Nigella Lawson not only for her fail-proof scrambled eggs, but also for her curves, sensuous looks, tragedies and relationships. Jamie Oliver is the naked chef in more ways than one; viewers have lapped up the bare essentials of his life away from the stove. And Gordon Ramsay is the sharp-tongued, no-nonsense meanie in the mold of Simon Cowell.
Now Indonesia, with a growing middle class with an insatiable appetite for food and celebrities, has its own offerings. Playful Rudy Choiruddin kept housewives company in the 1990s, as did motherly Sisca Soewitomo. Today, they continue on the airwaves, while writing regular recipe columns and doing food endorsements, but the old guard has been joined by more glamorous personalities – personalities who step out of the kitchen to appear on talk shows, do advertisements and make public appearances, sometimes with a very tenuous link to their cooking ability.
Perhaps viewers just want their cake and their cheesecake, too. And sometimes perhaps they just want eye candy.
The Main Dish
Standing head and shoulders above her peers is Farah Quinn. Mostly educated in the US since a teenager, Farah studied business and then turned her hand to being a pastry chef. She returned to Indonesia in 2009 on a break before she was scheduled to take a job at a hotel in Arizona.
But she was offered a TV cooking show traveling around the country. Her popularity quickly led to a slew of endorsements, from kitchen utensils to a juicy hamburger campaign, magazine covers (including this publication in May 2010) and appearances at society events.
“I expected people would get to know me, but I didn’t expect it to happen to fast,” says Farah, who now has her own cooking-cum-talk show while also raising a young son. “It was definitely an adjustment for me.”
She did expect the level of attention on her looks, family and background that came with being in the public eye.
“My kitchen is on TV, so like anybody else who is a public figure, people would be interested in my personal life as well,” she says.
She says she paid her dues as a chef working as a busser and a server in restaurants while attending culinary school in the US. She views being a celebrity chef – or, in her words, a “chef and TV personality” – as hard work, whatever some critics might say.
“Becoming a chef on any stage, whether it’s in front of the camera, a live audience or for a group of fastidious guests in a five-star restaurant, is always going to be challenging but it’s the lifetime dream for anyone who enters this business,” she says.
“A celebrity chef must work just as hard as any other chef but must also be able to charm the discerning eye of the camera. In short, I like to try to have my work speak for itself rather than letting myself become vexed by the comments of a few.”
In the mid-2000s, Bondan hosted his own food program, visiting restaurants and sharing his every bite with viewers. His “maknyus” (“delicious!”) pronouncement became his catchphrase, and it arguably made him more famous than did his work as a journalist or his pioneering “Jalan Sutra” (“silk road”) group of foodies always seeking its next tasty meal.
He acknowledges the celebrity chef phenomenon fills a need among a public that wants to see attractive faces.
“From another angle, excellent chefs probably are not trained, or haven’t trained themselves, to become standout performers,” he says. “I just hope that those performers who aren’t qualified as chefs don’t claim to be one, because it confuses the public. I’m not a chef, not even a cook, but still many people think I am.”
Real chefs with real TV potential will be needed to keep viewers hungering for more.
“Of course, I hope that people of the caliber of Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver will emerge in Indonesia, and this is the responsibility of TV stations and production houses to groom chefs to become performers,” he says.
But Bondan also acknowledges that the combination of attractive people and food makes for a sexy pairing and a ratings winner.
“Remember that Virginia Woolf said, ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ The combination of sex and food is dangerously delicious.”
However, he adds, “I think this is a passing trend. The question is, for how long?”
He also believes that the public, just as it is becoming more knowledgeable about its food choices, also will become more discriminating in its TV viewing.
“I like to believe that Indonesians are getting more and more knowledgeable in choosing which program suits them best,” he says.
“In the near future, I would say that both the programs with sex appeal and the others with more weight will have their own place in the market.”