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September 9th, 2015

All Thumbs

BY Christian Ford

A friend, knowing what I do here, recently suggested that I watch “The Mind of a Chef.”  Why not? I thought, pausing only briefly to muse that I had never intentionally viewed a cooking show, excepting a period in the third grade when I was mysteriously fascinated by something called The Galloping Gourmet.

So I did watch an episode and “Mind of a Chef” seems a perfectly reasonable endeavor.  But the primary response that the show provoked in me was to wonder about the astonishing popularity of cooking shows in a nation which doesn’t do a whole lot of actual cooking.  Where does the fascination come from?

If you’re of a wistful bent, you might think that because we are prevented from cooking by overly programmed lives, cooking shows substitute for the actual thing.  But there’s a weakness to that argument, because if you spent the time cooking that you spent watching cooking, you would have, in fact, cooked.

There’s also the possibility that many of these shows are watched not by the processed food crew, but by the ones that are actually cooking, on the lookout for new ideas and techniques.  But I am somewhat dubious of this thought, because of the way it flies in the face of the overly programmed lives which support the first theory.

The rise of the Instagrammed Meal suggests a totally different line of thinking, that food is a  social signifier, or “you are what you eat” reconfigured as fashion accessory.  This one feels closer to reality for me, with the cooking shows fulfilling the role of a shared meta-experience, like hanging out with people who like the same music.

And then there’s the notion of approachable celebrity.  As we all know, famousness has rained down on chefs in our era in a way totally unlike that of earlier times.  Whereas we might doubt that our singing in the shower could translate to untold millions of views on YouTube, perhaps there’s a glimmer that — with a little work — what we do in the kitchen could earn greater recognition.

I’m sure there’s a constituency for all of these ideas and more besides, but my personal theory is a bit different.  It’s less about food itself, and more about the making aspect, and it comes from a rather unlikely source.

Some years ago, I became intrigued by the self-evidently absurd idea of building a small boat.  I’d never even taken shop class in high school and while I was capable of dodging together props or bits of scenery with a hot glue gun, these were things meant to look like something real, not be something real.  But, as our oldest sailors’ tales tell us, there are sirens out there, singing beautiful lies.

It turns out that — in a microscopic version of cooking shows/books/blogs — there is a parallel ecosystem for boatbuilding, much of which assured me that there were new technologies which put the craft within reach of the reasonably ambitious or determined.  You could, for instance, get kits, where computer-driven lasers cut the compound curves of the plywood planks and all you, the “boatbuilder,” had to do was to tweak the edges and go heavy on the glue.

Whether that was, in fact, the case, I’ll never know, because my progress took a different shape.  There was a repeating pattern of (A) deciding that I was capable of x-task because there was a mitigating technology and (B) having the mitigating technology fail to mitigate.   The real “mitigating technology” turned out to be psychological, luring me to a point where it was simply too annoying or humiliating to give up, and so I would stumble onward.

It was in this extremely slow process, that I began to notice something strange.  There were certain tasks (most tasks) which were simply impossible to do right.  I’d resign myself to their amateurishness and keep on, because these weren’t tasks you do once, but over and over again.  And yet… there were moments.

And then more or more of them, moments when I would realize that a skill which had been overtly out of reach was now a thing which I could do.  What was utterly bewildering about the change was that there was never a moment of breakthrough, or discovery or even recognition, because it was always in retrospect that I would discover that the impossible task was now possible, happening right in front of me.  These most tangible skills were strangely ineffable, having secretly taken up residence in the body, never bothering to inform the intellect.

I won’t say that it ever got easy, and if anything, I now understand the true nature of the chasm that separates me from what I’m pretending to be.  But at the same time, these new abilities began to creep into other aspects of life, to the point that I found other people asking me to help them with problems that involved what were apparently unknowable skills.  I had, to some small degree, become competent.  Or, more specifically, physically competent at a constellation of skills that turned out to be surprisingly applicable to physical lives in a world of physical stuff.

This, I think, is the root of the cooking show fascination.  Here is a skill that we all have at least some conversance with, even if it’s only microwaving popcorn.  It’s a powerfully charismatic skill, (the Soylent geeks[] set mercifully aside.)  And if Richard Wrangham’s increasingly persuasive hypothesis[] is correct, it is the fundamental human skill, the one which drove the evolution of our physical form.  Part of that evolution was the transformation of the original ape hand into something amazingly, surreally dextrous, capable of tatting lace, performing brain surgery, folding origami, spinning thread, playing Rachmaninoff, forging a Rembrandt, landing a punch or blowing a kiss.

I have a friend whose father, in his retirement, has taken to teaching children in Japan how to make zōri, the straw “flip-flops” which have been traditional footwear for centuries.  It’s something he enjoys doing, but increasingly the kids are having difficulty with the skill.  Witnessing their struggles, he’s made the unwelcome discovery that each year’s crop of children, with their fine, quick fingers and perfect eyesight, are inexorably more clumsy than the last.

That stops me.  Because childhood is — or was — intensely physical and sensory, an ascending spiral of curiosity and discovery which is paced by a body that will gain the capacity to do almost anything asked of it.  But we’re not asking, beyond an anemic flailing at keyboards and touchscreens and the steering of machines (which are actively being redesigned so as not to interrupt the anemic flailing).

Within this strange, impoverished physicality, where the hand has begun to drift towards a vestigial fate, the ability to do things with those hands is becoming (and, boy, is this a bizarre thing to even think) — exotic.

Like all attractive exotics, a fundamental fascination has developed here and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the flourishing of cooking shows can best be understood as a kind of competence pornography.

How else to explain Iron Chef or any of its countless cousins?  Here is where viewers can experience the vicarious thrill of being able to see hands do something that exists in the same world they inhabit.  True, we have pockets of “maker culture,” but the phrase rings ironic or more likely absurdist, because human society was nothing but maker culture for millennia.  It had to be, because it was both what we did and how we survived.

True, you can find (on other channels) people executing amazing feats of human grace, skill and dexterity, but all in the service of what is essentially a never-ending episode of Stupid Human Tricks.  Real work — real doing, for a purpose — has become something that only machines or industrial serfs in offshore factories know how to do.  It’s a void, and one that I believe is is tugging at our collective subconscious.

Illiterate guys in candle lit workshops with crooked wooden planes and no rulers built the finest furniture ever conceived.  Norsemen without saws made the first ships to cross the stormy North Atlantic.  A couple bicycle mechanics with passable woodworking skills conquered heavier-than-air flight.  And you and me?  We’re pretty good at hitting the right combination of wrong letters that our smartphones can translate into the words we mostly intended.

But the manual arts of the kitchen won’t die. For the most part, we are an audience now, mesmerized by the wonder of a skilled chef, feeling diffuse awe at what the hands, eyes and mind can accomplish.  There are many industries delighted to foster our role as watchers, eager to aid in our devolution into clumsiness — in the kitchen as well as everywhere else — because dependency equals the need for purchasable assistance, tarted up as “convenience.”

That’s why our fascination with competence porn is a hopeful thing.  The kitchen has turned out to be a last refuge of craft, a living reminder of the many crafts that we once used to make our world.  It’s a pretty small fraction of what once was, but it’s the central one, and the enthusiasm with which so many of the millennial generation have rediscovered the kitchen arts suggests that this last refuge is more of an impregnable stronghold.  Maybe that’s because you can only watch competence porn for so long before getting tired of just watching.


Spanish Chef by Juanedc
American Chef by Marty Desilets
Japanese Chef by Mattias Hallberg
Russian Chef by Leidolv Magelssen
TV Crew by lenngrayes
Swedish Chef by Olle Svensson
Boat Building by Mr.TinDC