I never really got on board with food television. First off, as a person who loves to eat, but doesn’t love waiting for my food to cook, the idea of spending thirty minutes to an hour watching someone else, in a kitchen far, far away, have a cook-off with ingredients I don’t have, whip with finesse that I could probably never imitate, all to make a dish that I don’t get to taste at the end, just leads to a hefty slice of resentment over my empty stomach. Cooking shows make me hungry and jealous. I’d rather just order a pizza and watch myself eat it.
Naturally, this opinion both offends my Food Network-crazed friends and leaves me as part of the very small population who hasn’t [yet] gotten hooked on the recent trend of food shows, which leads me to my next raised hand about food TV: the drama. Shows like Master Chef incorporate elaborate tests of human worth into their cooking competitions, transforming your average stir-behind-the-counter episode into a stage where you are an absolute fool if you can’t sear the chicken the way that chicken deserves to be seared. Then you have premises like Chopped, shows that present chefs with absurd ingredients and an unrealistically small amount of time to transform them into a restaurant-ready meal. But I get why foodie series are popular: episodes give lazy cookers and seasoned connoisseurs alike new ideas for recipes, allowing them to cast eyes on gourmet dishes without breaking bank to fly into Michelin-starred restaurants of Gordon Ramsay and his entourage. That, and the enjoyment of food is the one thing we all share. The way food is created and consumed can speak loudly about social and community tradition, customs handed down long lines of cooks: and if that’s a part of the story, it makes for something interesting onscreen. I could give that a chance — with or without the gimmicks.
Steven Page, former Barenaked Lady and forever lover of cuisine decided to weigh in. He, for one, is fascinated by food, but has a self-described love-hate relationship with its presence on television. While sometimes shows get lost in elaborate premises, to Page, the most interesting part is food’s connection to community. “[When it comes to] food television in general, I really like it when it’s about the food and you get to learn how to cook something,” he says. “It’s not just about it being weird or daring. It’s a reflection of a culture.”
Having left the Barenaked Ladies in 2009 to focus on his solo career, Page had always wanted to shift some of his attention to his passion of food, wine, and travel. The idea for a show started a year and a half ago in San Francisco. Page wanted to uncover underground eateries, capturing the essence of a city through their culinary scene. They shot a demo, and it went so well that they decided to travel to as many locations as possible. From street meat to wild game, Page has followed his mouth all over Canada and the US. Highlights were a plenty and each city unwrapped surprising new tastes. “From Boston to Chicago – there are a lot of interesting modernist cuisines,” says Page. “People trying to rediscover historical menus and so on, such incredible range of foods. In the southeast we ate a lot of pork. Caviche fish and swine.”
Restaurant investigations were lined up by finding out about little known spots, pop-up diners and elite supper clubs through writers, bloggers, and chefs. The last months, Page has been wrapping up filming to premiere the show, seeking to shine light on recipes passed through generations, and what challenges cooks might face in trying to serve them. Some of the continent’s best foods, Page discovered, aren’t easily presented to the public.
“There are a lot of reasons why things are underground,” says Page. “Sometimes there are ridiculous rules and regulations. But some of the world’s best foods started underground and unlicensed.” Because of tight security on some ingredients or processes, many of North America’s delicacies are kept under wraps. The show focuses on eateries that boldly face laws relating to food, bringing people treats that might not be readily available. “One of the things that we talk about is raw milk. You wouldn’t be able to get that in a restaurant. But you could give it as a gift, it’s not illegal.”
Anyone who lives in Toronto has heard murmurs of the food truck controversies, and the tight regulations that have only recently been up for discussion. Earlier this summer, some trucks were permitted to start selling at select parks. Page took to Toronto to unpack the scene and found interest in the controversy. “Some cities allow people to cook things in trucks, some [only] allow parking,” he said. “[It can be] a real bureaucratic nightmare.” In his visit to Toronto, Page also stopped by at underground restaurant Charlie’s Burgers, an elusive spot that exposes itself only to guests who receive an e-vite. The surprise joint reveals a time and location, and informs diners that that the experience is exclusive to food lovers: “No screwing around. If you want or won’t eat certain foods, this is probably not for you.”
With Page’s premise based on uncovering private, borderline illegal eateries or revealing those who skirt the rules, I asked him his show might blow their cover. “We never want to expose anybody in a way that jeopardizes what they do,” says Page. “Some people have gotten cold feet, didn’t want to show an address or specifically by name. But a lot of it is finding loopholes.” Drawing attention to those loopholes and obstacles that both amateur cooks and high-end chefs have been forced to face just commemoratives their creativity and drive – and perhaps says something about regulations that should and could be changed. “There are a lot of secrets,” he adds.
We think Page might be on to something in changing the game of food TV. This isn’t just about the stunts, but about the food itself: its history, its journey, and its urban significance. The Canadian artist is featuring passionate people who are forced to defy the rules to express their food as art. Transitioning into television, we had to ask Page about the music. “Oh, the show features a lot of my music,” says Page. “Including the theme song.”
The Illegal Eater, premieres October 22, 9 PM ET/10 PM PT on Travel and Escape.