Isn’t it ironic? At a time when more and more surveys are showing that fewer and fewer Americans are cooking from scratch (if cooking at all), and instead are turning to take-out or microwave-able, pre-made meals, cooking has never been hotter on television.
Along with the usual PBS staples and Martha Stewart Living, we’ve got a whole network about culinary delights in The Food Network, minting new chef-stars quickly, like The Naked Chef, Emeril Legasse (who proved so popular he even got his own NBC sitcom, brief as its run was), and author Anthony Bourdain, bringing his swinging machismo to the network with his well-reviewed series, A Cook’s Tour. Meanwhile, on other stations, Regis & Kelly occasionally make dishes; the long-running Dinner & a Movie is still simmering on TNT; and even the home shopping program, QVC, offers up recipes demonstrated right on air as celebrities and others pitch their pots, pans, and high-tech spatulas.
Pacific Productions/Channel 4
Regular airtime: various airtimes
(E! Channel and Style Network)
Certainly one would have thought then that the very last thing we needed was yet another freakin’ cooking show. But that was before E! and its sister station, the Style Network, imported Nigella Bites, starring self-described “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson. In doing so, they have revolutionized and reinvented the entire genre of cooking TV.
Lawson’s show began on the UK’s Channel 4, where it was a sensation. She’s a former journalist who first covered general news, then made food her specialty. Her work has appeared in England’s The Spectator, Evening Standard, The Guardian, and, in America, Bon Appetite.
And she’s a TV natural, with an easy-going, chatty, and insouciant manner about her. If any of her on-air talk is scripted, it certainly doesn’t sound like it. She just refuses to take lunch or dinner that seriously. Her philosophy: food is fun! That attitude makes her seem a little like, well . . . us. Quite wonderfully, she’s not afraid to have the audience see her sneak a taste of the dessert before she takes it out to her guests or bang the oven door shut when her hands are full, or, for that matter, really get in there with a plump, beautiful skin-colored dough and get her hands deliciously dirty.
As wonderful as Lawson is as a TV persona, she is equally matched by her program’s amazing, radical-for-the-genre production values. Watching Nigella Bites is unlike watching any cooking show you’ve ever seen before: it’s shot on film rather than on harsh videotape, in slightly soft focus, with graceful, fluid camera movements at inventive angles. The film seems to pop the colors of the food, and the camera often moves in for sensual close-ups of really ripe tomatoes; deep green, fresh parsley; or the bright, solid, all-the-way-through yellow of a stick of butter. The effect is fresh, warm, and surprisingly calming. Comparatively, every other cooking show come across as static, clinical, and antiseptic; Emeril, et. al., now look like high school science experiments brought to you on public access TV. Nigella Bites, on the other hand, looks like a Renoir-inspired celebration of food, glorious food!
And as much attention has been paid to the sound of the show as to its visuals. Whether they are amplified or enhanced (who cares), the sounds seem as new as the accompanying pictures—never before have you ever quite noticed the particularly beautifully sound of a fresh egg cracked—with one hand—on a the edge of a glass bowl. All of these elements work together to give the program a highly tactile and even odorous quality. You imagine you can touch the food, smell it.
But, as good at the show may look and feel, just how informative Nigella Bites is about cooking is open to debate. We don’t get too much info on the origins or history of a dish, or on some of the more important facts—Nigella, honey, approximately how much is a “splash” of white wine? And just how hot should the oven be? Additionally, she sometimes whips up her recipes a little too fast for some of us novices, but at least the E! producers have been kind enough to translate for us Americans all of the metric measurements into cups and tablespoons via a crawl at the bottom of the screen.
But immediate practical application may not be the only, or even the best, reason to watch a “how-to” show. After all, watching an episode of This Old House doesn’t mean you are going to run out and gut a Victorian or remodel a ranch-style, or that you’re qualified to. Just so, Nigella is more about the sheer enjoyment of cooking. Certainly on no other cooking show have you ever seen food so lovingly treated or shown us a chef so excited or enthused about her work.
In that way, Nigella, in both her persona and her show, is like the anti-Martha Stewart. Nigella Bites says food doesn’t have to be perfect, just made and consumed with joy. Compared to Stewart’s rigid rules and micro-measuring, Nigella’s kitchen is one of relaxed, pure, edible pleasures . . . and a little bit of decadence. Whose house would you rather go to?