TAKE HOME CHEF
Regular airtime: Fridays, 8pm ET (TLC)
Cast: Curtis Stone
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
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In 2006, cuisine is the new vice. While the term “foodie” feels like a more polite label for gourmand, or glutton, the media have made mealtimes an extension of social standing. We no longer eat to live. We eat to live large. A decade ago, dishes of twice-spiced figs in a balsamic reduction, raw beef and fennel salad, or foie gras and truffle tureen, would have been viewed as elitist fare indicative of a cultured pallet and a healthy bank statement. Today, they are the calling cards of cool, a symbol that we’ve graduated beyond meat and potatoes.
The refreshing thing about Curtis Stone, the amiable Aussie star of TLC’s Take Home Chef, is that he wants to find a balance between the two extremes. He understands that, for most people, a gourmet dinner is a rare treat. Yet he is also well aware that most of our meals are dictated by work schedules, kitchen skills, and the ready availability of easy to prepare processed foods. Hoping to reintroduce refinement to the average household menu, Stone has come to America (he is currently a top personality and restaurateur in the UK) to prove that being an epicure can be easy and exciting.
The show’s premise show is simple. Stone approaches individuals while they’re grocery shopping, offers his services in the choice and preparation of the evening meal, then follows them home to begin the cooking. True, he does seem a tad over-groomed: his blond hair is stylishly spiked and his smile seems never-ending. But Stone in action is less studly than practical. He evades many trends that mark other televised food how-to shows; instead of trying to squeeze in as many recipes as possible in 30 minutes (like Rachel Ray) or combining fresh and pre-made items to concoct something semi-homemade (Sandra Lee), he focuses on delivering a single, sumptuous meal.
Concentrating on one family, a few simple ingredients, and three distinct dishes, Take Home Chef also helps to expand the chosen family’s options. Since Stone is paying, they have access to Dungeness crab and four-pound lobsters for salad or entrée. In the four episodes reviewed, fish and seafood figured prominently. Only one installment focused on meat, and in that instance, Stone helped to bone, season, and roll in rosemary branches a leg of lamb, before roasting it on a charcoal grill. Other offerings included citrus-crusted sole, a lobster and champagne risotto, and wild salmon on a bed of Swiss chard. Even though his dishes sound exotic, Stone doesn’t “dumb it down” for his always amazed host. He creates four-star eatery fare in easy to emulate steps, appears open to answering questions, and never complicates an entree to show off.
Still, some problems emerge. Consider the “unsuspecting” people Stone “selects” in the supermarket. Whether or not the approach and acceptance are staged, the participants appear well-rehearsed and totally TV-friendly. They banter and bait Stone with compliments and inquiries. Some act ignorant regarding food and preparation, while others rival Stone in gastronomic knowledge. They never complain about fava beans or fresh beets: every ingredient seems fine with everyone. In their upper middle-class homes, some participants shift into “hostess with the mostest” mode, primping and preening for the camera.
Indeed, the participants so far have been the wives of working husbands. This suggests that such ladies of leisure are cheating their families out of fine food by failing to make tastier, more tantalizing meals every night. It’s almost as if the show is arguing that without those once mandatory Home Ec skills, women need a man with substantive chef’s experience to show them how to please their clan.
Luckily, Stone’s charm usually carries the day. Most of the men who come home to find a houseful of TLC crewmembers look genuinely shocked. But once they taste the dishes, their demeanor mellows. Their evident satisfaction and acknowledgment of excellent ingredients professionally prepared makes us instantly jealous (who wouldn’t want one of Stone’s molten chocolate puddings?). While Stone doesn’t go so far as to dismiss outright the microwave or MSG, he means to convert us to the fresh and fragrant. And so he does.
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