Bravo's Eat Drink Love Is Bad for Women, the Food World and Los Angeles
Eat Drink Love, the new Bravo show that follows the lives of five women in L.A.'s food scene, debuts this Sunday, Aug. 11. Bravo, of course, is the network that gave us Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. And despite being food-related, Eat Drink Love is far more Real Housewives than Top Chef.
The show follows women with jobs in different areas of L.A.'s food scene -- a marketing director for a restaurant group, a restaurant PR rep, two chefs (one private chef and one business owner), and one food writer. Look on Bravo's website about the show for descriptions of these women that include wording like "crushes stereotypes associated with gender and youth." Unfortunately, if anything, Eat Drink Love goes a long way toward perpetuating many, many stereotypes about women, the food world and Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the stereotypes being indulged here do none of those things any good.
Here's one (obvious) example: Within the first eight minutes of the show, the women's weight has been discussed three times, two of the cast members making sure to mention a specific number and one (perfectly normally sized) cast member complaining about the supposed "extra 10 pounds" she's carrying.
In recent years, Top Chef host and judge Gail Simmons has waged an incredibly classy campaign against discussing weight when it comes to women on food television, politely asking interviewers if they would try to discuss weight with a male TV host, even when the question is supposed to be complimentary (as in, "How do you stay in shape with all that eating!?"). Which is one reason this show is so dispiriting. Yes, this is television, and yes, looks matter, but the blatant valuation of these women based on their weight is horribly depressing.
What's also depressing is the way these women's careers are depicted. Waylynn Lucas, the former pastry chef at the Bazaar who now co-owns Fōnuts, comes across as by far the most down-to-earth and likable of the ladies in the cast. Yet from the beginning, it's her love life and not her food or achievements that are given attention, with much being made of who she's dated in the past (Michael Voltaggio) and all the men who come into her store ostensibly to ogle her.
Perhaps most alarming is the depiction of Kat Odell, editor of the food news and gossip site Eater Los Angeles. Food journalism is a fairly misunderstood profession as it is, with many people assuming that we writers have too-chummy relationships with PR people, and that our motives are too self-serving, power-hungry and ego-driven. Odell only perpetuates these notions. While the opening credits are still rolling, we hear her say, "I can make or break a restaurant," and much of the show's airtime is given to detailing how many people in the restaurant industry Odell is dating. This is revealed mainly through conversations with Brenda Urban, a restaurant public relations rep who, it's made clear, is only friendly with Odell because they need each other professionally.
It's a sleazy, disheartening portrait of food journalism from the outset, with Urban declaring matter-of-factly, "Kat has a reputation for sleeping with everyone she writes about and writing about everyone she sleeps with." The number of L.A. restaurants that are mentioned by name and therefore dragged into this ugly quagmire is embarrassing for them and for the city.
All this would be fine if Bravo and Eater weren't peddling Odell as a true journalist -- but they are. A couple of weeks back, Eater's founder, Lockhart Steele, got into a Twitter tiff with chef and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio about whether Eater adheres to journalistic standards. After a lengthy exchange -- about restaurant criticism, the star rating system, etc. -- Steele declared that Eater is "doing some of the best food journalism anywhere." Colicchio disagreed, at one point making the argument that Eater had never reached out to him to check a fact, and there was even a challenge on Steele's part for a public debate over the matter.
It's also worth mentioning, after seeing Eat Drink Love, that sleeping with your subjects and/or sources isn't looked upon kindly in the world of journalism either. That Eater's Odell does so with such abandon, and is willing to advertise it on television, is a blow to food journalism in general, and female food journalists in particular.
I'm aware that this is reality television, and that hoping for a show that depicts serious journalism is like hoping The Real Housewives turned out to be a show about Hillary Clinton's humanitarian efforts. But even so, as a show about women, the food world and L.A. in particular, Eat Drink Love is far more embarrassing and disheartening than I had expected.
(Full disclosure: When I arrived in L.A., Odell made quite an effort to publish a photo of me in an attempt to "catch a critic." While the experience was slightly annoying, she was only doing her job as dictated by Eater, and I did not go into the watching of this show looking for any reason to dislike her or the show itself.)
UPDATE: Eater founder Lockhart Steele posted a comment (see below) and the two of us also had a phone conversation after he invited me to call him. Based on both those things, I thought it was necessary to add a couple of thoughts. On the phone, he repeated his belief that Odell does not sleep with or date her subjects and sources, and that the producers of the show edited it cleverly to imply this rather than it being a reality. He told me he believes that the remainder of the season ought to assuage my anxiety somewhat about how Odell is portrayed as a female food writer.
He says that other cast members' comments are the main way in which the show implies Odell is dating people in the restaurant industry, which is correct. But Odell herself claims quite giddily in the first episode that she "had a thing" with the general manager of Son of a Gun, as well as someone who works at the Bazaar. The show also portrays Odell in a flirtation with a restaurateur, one in which she asks to see him again, obviously in a romantic context. It is no doubt the case that reality TV producers are going to amp up the drama, and that Odell herself is looking to play a character of sorts. It may even be that she's out-and-out lying about her romantic life on the show, or at the very least exaggerating her exploits to make better television. None of that mitigates the fact that this is how a female food writer is being portrayed on television, and it's likely to add to the public's general distrust of the profession. I sincerely hope Steele's claim that the remaining shows on the season work to restore some credit to Odell is true.
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