Master chef Ming Tsai is roughing it on a hardy lobster boat in Gloucester, Mass., wearing waterproof boots, thick, workmen's gloves and squinting out at the traps bobbing in the harbor.
The outfit and locale are not customary for Tsai's popular Food Network cooking shows, but this time, before stir-frying this episode's gastronomic masterpiece - Singapore-style black-pepper lobster - he's going to have to catch the crustacean first.
The camera rolls as Tsai painstakingly hauls in the traps and unloads the lobsters, gingerly snapping elastic bands around their claws before storing them in salt-water tanks. In fact, the show's half-hour is almost over before Tsai takes to the kitchen to fry his catch.
Tsai's new show this fall, "Ming's Quest," epitomizes the latest trend in America's food and cooking shows, where the focus tends to be on showmanship, entertainment, travel and adventure. Cooking, sometimes, is merely the sidebar.
"Viewers today need to have a context for their recipes," said Eileen Opatut, Food Network's senior vice president of production, programming and operations. "People got tired of the same-old, same-old, person standing behind the kitchen counter cooking. We talked to our consumers, and what they were really interested in were stories about the food itself, people and their relationships with food, and strong personalities who could be both teachers and entertainers."
So this fall, the new food shows premiering on television include "Ming's Quest," where he also goes diving for abalone in California and researches ostrich farming in Texas; Food Network's "Melting Pot," where chefs explore the stories and cuisines of five different countries; and Public Broadcasting Service's "Nick Stellino's Family," which centers on a host's Italian cooking and culture.
Food programmers say the shows have become more varied in recent years because the genre's audience has grown in size and diversity. Thirty years ago, cooking-show audiences were mostly female. Today, the genre's audience includes men, minorities and younger people who may not necessarily love to cook but enjoy watching, nonetheless.
"A lot of my friends like to watch shows like 'Iron Chef' because it's totally wacky. ... It's like a comedy, and they're all overreacting," said Susie Malayaman, 20, of Ellicott City, who never paid attention to food shows until about two years ago when she first tuned into Food Network. "I don't like to watch the ones where they tell you what ingredients to put in and how to cook."
Just three years ago, more than 50 percent of Food Network's audience was over 55. Today, the average age of the network's audience is 39, and the majority is between 35 and 54. Its audience also fluctuates between being 45 percent and 50 percent male, and younger viewers like Malayaman increasingly are tuning in.
These new food shows also have been drawing more viewers in recent years. Food Network launched in 1993 with 6 million viewers tuning into its six cooking show series. Now, the network has 50.5 million viewers and 25 original series in its lineup. PBS always has had between six to 10 cooking shows on its schedule.
Janice Carey, Maryland Public Television's director of station relations, said as the audience has changed, cooking shows have become more ethnically diverse. She said popular shows on PBS have centered on particular cuisines, such as Italian or Jewish.
"They aren't your traditional cooking shows any longer," Carey said. "It's not like, 'Here's the pot roast and here's a custard pie for dessert.' Americans are more diverse now. They want to see what relates to them."
Food Network's Opatut said competition with other sources of information also has altered the nature of cooking shows. With audiences able to find recipes or download videos of cooking demonstrations online, the television shows have had to adjust.
And the plethora of cable channels today has created a much savvier television audience that now expects to be entertained in an original fashion - even on cooking shows. In addition to its popular culinary cook-off show, "Iron Chef," Food Network will debut some new personality-driven shows this fall. B. Smith, owner of the popular New York City restaurant bearing her name, is the host of her own lifestyle and cooking show, and Jamie Oliver, an effervescent young British chef, will strip gourmet cooking to the basics on "Naked Chef" - where the food, not the chef, is nude.
Dick Hanratty, director of PBS Plus, which features food programming, said he is careful to pick the more unusual shows from the myriad that he sees every season.
And he foresees that in the next few years, cooking shows will become even more varied as more people tune in - whether it's to learn how to cook or merely for a half-hour of armchair cooking and traveling.
"Most people aren't watching because they want to cook," Hanratty said. "They're watching because they want to be entertained. And the more entertaining chefs will end up getting the better time slots. ... Like, chefs like Martin Yan ("Yan Can Cook" show) - he could cook fertilizer balls and he would be fun to watch."
Malayaman, a junior at Tufts University in Massachusetts whose college friends are huge fans of the fun-focused food shows, said her generation wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're more fast-paced," Malayaman said. "We like these shows because it's not about putting in the ingredients, it's about how the chef interacts.
"No one," she added, "writes down the recipes."
"New Jewish Cuisine"- Premiered Sept. 3, 4 p.m. every Sunday.
"Nick Stellino's Family "-Premiered Sept. 3, 5:30 p.m. every Sunday
The Food Network
"Ming's Quest" - Premiered Aug. 31, 10 p.m.
"Melting Pot"- Premiered Aug. 28, 3:30 p.m.
"B. Smith With Style" - Premiered Aug. 28, 12 p.m.
"Naked Chef"- Premiering Nov. 4, 9:30 p.m.
"Wolfgang Puck "- Premiering early next year.
"Sweet Dreams" - Premiering Oct. 2, 3 p.m.