Drama on food television can be pretty predictable. There's the suspense by mystery element in the form of a basket of secret ingredients, undercover dinner guests, or maybe a surprise challenge. There's also the conceit of the cooking competition amongst chefs, amateurs, or some combo of the two. Premiering last night on Cooking Channel, The Freshman Class attempts to break free of this paradigm with a closer look at the lives of five students at the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge.
As the significantly younger sibling to Food Network, Cooking Channel has taken more risks in their programming (see: The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia and Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen). With a tagline “Stay Hungry,” adding a short 8-part documentary series to their lineup is just a part of its strategy to showcase food in ways unexplored by the Food Network.
The new documentary series doesn't glamorize culinary school, emphasizing instead on the difficulties of the program at LCI. The Freshman Class attempts to give a perspective aside from the shiny images of celebrity chefs and food personalities, which have been attributed to the ascending rise of interest in culinary careers.
The figures for culinary graduates can be grim. By the time the average student leaves his program, he'll generally have racked up a debt bigger than his post-program wages — which are often around minimum wage — will allow him to easily repay.
On the first episode, we meet Jared Heine, Ben Mitchell, Jasmine Simmons, and Tiffany Theriot and her daughter April, just days before they began their program. The four come from different life stages with similar motivations for attending culinary school. It's a production choice probably meant to illustrate the cross-section of not only the student body, but the 30,000 people (a statistic flashed at one point) who enroll in culinary school each year.
The main storylines are compelling in their own way. Simmons is a 22-year-old black woman who, at the time of filming, worked as a stripper in New Orleans and chose LCI as an exit strategy. A middle-aged mother of four, Theriot wants to pick up an education after she got pregnant in high school. (She's joined at LCI by daugheter April, 19, who is more of a secondary character on the first episode.) Heine is a young honorably discharged Marine who wants to open a restaurant with a fellow Marine. Mitchell is a struggling taxidermist with a dream to open a Cajun restaurant as a legacy for his three kids. And this is all taking place in a region currently undergoing a culinary renewal.
It's a shame then to see that the series doesn't quite live up to its potential. The 8-part setup may be familiar to viewers of docu-dramas on MTV, TLC, and even Bravo, juxtaposing snippets of each of the main four characters with transitionary graphics. It's a format that detracts from the impact of the series. By trying to pack in as much as possible with four storylines in a 20-minute window, the viewer can't help but feel shortchanged when certain poignant moments are glossed over.
The Freshman Class premiered last night at 7:30 p.m. (PST) on the Cooking Channel. New episodes will air weekly on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. Last night's episode is available for streaming online.
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