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Real Women On The Reality of TV's 'Eat Drink Love'

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When it comes to being considered a food lover’s paradise, Los Angeles has often been treated like a wallflower by outsiders. What better way to not only elevate the profile of the city's robust food culture, but also shed light on the dynamic roles women play in the industry than with a television show about five ladies entrenched in the L.A. "foodie" scene, right?

That is unless the show you're talking about is Bravo's Eat Drink Love, a " reality" show centered on the lives of five women living, eating and "loving" in Los Angeles. Sprung from the fertile loins of the media marriage of documentary and orchestrated drama, EDL gives us a glimpse at the allegedly tantalizing worlds of Kat Odell (The Critic), Brenda Urban (The PR Rep), Waylynn Lucas (The Baker), Jessica Miller (The Boss), and Nina Clemente (The Chef).

Before EDL even premiered there was a public outcry that the show set back the progress of women in our society by decades, thanks to a “plot” that sparks with cattiness, flirtation, fashion, and dippy “like, ohmigod!” moments. With professional kitchens long seen as the swearing, smoking, sweating, testosterone-driven domain of men, female chefs often find themselves working twice as hard for opportunities and recognition in the industry. And while hospitality PR reps are often female, the business world in general still holds over working women’s heads the kind of glass ceiling a gaggle of giggling, boyfriend stealing, wine swilling, gossiping gals can't shatter.

Of course, most TV viewers learned back when “The Real World” kids started getting group jobs and party pads that when it comes to “reality” programming, there are definite air quotes around the word “reality.” Docutainment comes in many forms, whether overtly crafted as games, like “Top Chef,” or purports to take us inside some heartwrenching underbelly, like “Celebrity Rehab.” These days, when you sign up to be “talent” on a reality show, there’s enough precedent set to make the watcher believe the people on the screen knew what they were getting themselves into.

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So there’s the rub: EDL claims to show the real lives of real women in the real food industry in L.A. Except everyone knows reality TV is meant to be served with a generous pinch of salt. We haven’t stopped being polite, but we certainly aren’t getting real.

In order to dive a little deeper into something that perhaps shouldn’t be so skin deep, we asked several women who work in the L.A. food world if they felt well represented by the EDL cast, and what kind of light the show sheds on women working in our food scene.

Are these women for real?
Of the five women in the cast, one whose work and personal life seems to have raised the most eyebrows is Eater LA editor Kat Odell. In one recent episode, Odell is cautioned over dinner with PR rep Brenda Urban that her reputation is taking a nosedive for the gutter, specifically that many readers of the food gossip site believe that Odell sleeps with the male chefs she writes about.

In response, Bravo published a blog post by Odell: “I Do Not Sleep With People In the Restaurant Industry.” Oh dear. So is Odell the prototypical L.A. food writer?

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Pat Saperstein, Editor of EatingLA.com, says that’s a firm no. “I don't identify with [Odell] on the show, because I don't feel she operates the same way a reputable journalist would,” says Saperstein.

As freelance food writer and lifestyle blogger Esther Tseng of e*starLA observes, Odell’s specific gig at Eater LA is not the same as what many other food bloggers or writers do, since Odell is locked into a “quota” of posts per day that largely focus on local food biz news. It’s true that there isn’t a widespread understanding of how a major blog is put forth day after day, but the reality is there’s a lot more drudgery, deadlines, and hours spent glued to the laptop while dressed in pajamas than the show bears witness to. ("The Real Housewives of LAist" is not in pre-production, we promise). At the end of the day, being a successful food writer in actuality isn’t a matter of gender, either: “Food writers get our scoops a wide variety of ways that have nothing to do with the fact that we are women,” notes Tseng.

For some, like Lucy Lean, author of the cookbook “Made in America” and the publisher of the site Ladles and Jellyspoons, the discrepancy between the screen and real life is quite broad: “It's like saying I can relate to the Kardashians because they are parents. You wouldn't watch [“Eat Drink Love”] to understand what it means to write about food or interview a chef or even try out a new restaurant.”

So is it the sexiness that Bravo is banking on? Over on the workhorse reality competition show “America’s Next Top Model,” you’ll find supermodel Tyra Banks coaching young women to ensure they are seen as not just desirable by men but as aspirational to women. Consider the Bravo target demo. Are they meant to look up to the women of “EDL”? The show “makes food writers look like sluts and publicists look like shrews,” reflects Saperstein.

Let’s talk about sex, baby
Prominent of those situations is the constant emphasis on sex and dating, which, if we are to take the show at face value, is as important as working for women in the food business in Los Angeles. Oh, really? “I'm sure there are some women in the L.A. food scene who are more focused on dating and sex but most of the ones I know are pretty absorbed with their families and their jobs,” says Saperstein.

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“Who has that kind of time?” quips Michele Grant, owner of The Kosher Palate food truck and catering company. “Working in the food industry is long long hours and as the business owner it demands a 30-plus hour day, nine-day-a week commitment. Everything else is secondary,” adds Grant. Tseng agrees: “I'm thinking people are busier actually working.”

And, PS not all the ladies in the food business are single (or straight, or man hungry, for that matter). “The L.A. food scene I experience really doesn't have anything to do with sex and dating—unless I'm taking my husband on a date or Nancy Silverton is describing uni with lardo as sex on toast!” jokes Lean.

"I think it's safe to say that for ratings and reality show scandal purposes, the dating and sex is emphasized more for the show than it would be normally in real life,” observes Christine Kirk, Founder & CEO of Social Muse Communications, food writer, and L.A. Correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide. The truth is kind of ugly, according to Saperstein: “If they showed the hard-working, sweaty non-makeup wearing chefs or older, experienced women who have been in the business for years, it wouldn't really work for that type of reality show.”

Believe it or not, one wants to watch shows about people who simply work their asses off. “The restaurant industry is also filled with extremely hard work, and some of the hardest working people anywhere,” notes Kirk. Surely Bravo’s roundfile for failed pitches includes a number of shows about “hard work.”

What it comes down to is the old media motto: Sex sells. “The somewhat absurd dating/sex/relationship aspect of the show is distorted to drive the story lines,” elaborates chef, culinary instructor, and freelance food writer Rachael Narins.

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Food and sex have become bedfellows of late, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of “food porn” as both a term and a trend. Bravo knows this, which is why their website includes a section devoted to each of the cast member’s “food porn” photos. While the ladies cook, and eat, and drink (when they aren’t “love-ing”) constantly on the show, there’s very little actual food talk; a viewer isn’t going to learn what makes a dish good, or a restaurant successful (aside from it being mentioned in Eater LA, perhaps). Appearance is everything
With all that eating, what is talked about on the other side of the small screen is the women’s appearance, specifically their weight.

“As someone who is at a lot of the same events they go to, I can say, no one wants to eat the amount of food some of these women are presented with. Ever,” says Narins. “It's too much, but a part of the job. Other reality shows that aren't about food don't address this, but there aren’t any other shows about single girls who eat for a living either.”

Now that there is such a show, naturally the women on it are all attractive, with a sense of personal style, and fit bodies. (No word on if a part was offered to venerable Pulitzer-prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold.) While on TV we prefer our food writers lithe and flirty, in the real world, gender plus appearances can influence success in a different way. “I do feel there is something of a double standard in that a heavy male food writer is probably more respected than a heavy female one,” says Saperstein.

The ladies of “Eat Drink Love,” however, are more or less dressed for the part. “These women on screen, with their hair and makeup, Cali curls and neon pink lipstick don't look anything like the women I encounter day to day in the LA food scene,” explains Lean. “Even the times I've been with certain cast members they haven't looked like [they do on the show]. They've been dressed up to be camera ready for a Bravo audience just as their words and actions have been edited down to the juiciest bits - it's all in the edit.”

If this is a show about women, where is the sisterhood?
Editors are left to contend with the footage that they’re given, though of course in “reality” TV, with its writers and directors, there is heavy orchestration. Lucas, who co-owns the bakeshop Fonuts, has done well for herself through sacrifice and hard work, much of which can be devalued by a series of scenes of her sobbing over the wedding dress for the marriage that never was, or flirting with a love-interest chef at his restaurant while demonstrating a recipe to one of his employees.

The show “feels fluffy and gossipy- like the real housewives of L.A. Food. It makes the women come off vapid and catty,” observes Grant. Narins concurs, calling the “insanely catty” content a “disservice” to the truth.

Much of the cattiness is cached in bad behavior, and the women may end up feeling some very real-world consequences. Says Kirk: “The food and restaurant PR world in LA is a very small world and reputation is everything. It's doesn't behoove anyone to burn bridges with anyone in the LA restaurant industry.”
Not all women operate as though L.A. is their sandbox, either. “There’s also a huge amount of support for each other, “ such as “cheering each other on, helping each other out,” explains Grant. Unfortunately, the only helping out “EDL” shows is the regular info-feeding meals Urban says she shares with Odell in order to keep her clients on the editor’s radar—or on Odell’s good side.

Gender politics in the kitchen
And for this, ladies, the generations before us marched for the vote and burned their bras.“In the kitchen or on the business side, being a woman [in the food industry] is still an uphill climb,” observes Grant, who is no stranger to success herself; she was one half of a partnership that launched a little something known as The Grilled Cheese Truck. “There's a whole lotta macho flying around and it's something you have to figure out how you're going to deal with,” she says of the food biz.

“It’s incredibly difficult to be a woman in food. No doubt about it. Kitchens are far harder on women than most other workplaces,” adds Narins.

Why be on a reality show?
On EDL, only Clemente gets behind the stoves for a living, and indeed, the work is seen as being quite grueling. No wonder she, and perhaps her cast-mates, were happy to segue their professional lives into reality television. But knowing how decidedly “unreal” reality shows are, why still do it? As L.A. Times Food Editor Russ Parsons remarked on Twitter in response to L.A. Weekly food critic Besha Rodell’s piece on the show, “how could any of those people have thought this was a good idea? Is this a career builder? Which career?”

Parsons isn’t the only one questioning the women’s decisions. “I'm sure most of the situations are invented but the fact that these women have accepted to go along with it doesn't reflect well on them,” says Saperstein. Notes Lean: “It's hurtful to those in the show who are having their lives made to look one way when in reality it's not like that.”

Is it destiny? “I don't see how you can get any other result when you "docu-drama-ment" a group of women and random male restauranteurs and chefs (most of whom I've met in my handful of years food writing, in one capacity or another) who I could never see voluntarily hanging out together and expect a positive portrayal,” observes Tseng.

Of course, working for the same company that propelled many a “housewife” to stardom could pay off. “I think the point of being on a reality show is to have some giggles, embarrass yourself and end up with a line of diet vodka or whatever. I hope all these girls get all that. Why not? It’s all in good fun,” says Narins good-naturedly.

Why watch “Eat Drink Love”?

It’s actually a bit of a head-scratcher why someone would watch the show, thanks to its very “insider baseball” glimpse at alleged movers and shakers in the L.A. food biz, and name dropping of local chefs and their projects. “I don’t see the appeal outside of those of us who live here, other than looking at some beautiful women acting equally earnest and silly,” says Narins. “I don’t think this show is going to prompt any starry-eyed girls to jump on a bus from Iowa to join this scene, that's for sure.”

Maybe if we are treated to a second helping of "Eat Drink Love" there can be some redemption, hopes Lean. “If the show is a success then perhaps they can include more food porn and less pimping of the women but then it would have to be moved over to PBS.”

Then again, maybe we’re all taking this too much to heart.

“If you don't take the show too seriously, I think anything that draws attention to LA's growing and inventive food scene is a positive thing," concludes Kirk. “The show should be enjoyed on the couch with a glass of wine for fun, and for entertainment, and shouldn't be taken more seriously than that. “

"Eat Drink Love" airs Thursday nights on Bravo.