Many vibrant personalities host cooking shows, as well as numerous exceptional culinary teachers. Few individuals are both.
REFERENCED TV SHOWS
$40 a Day
30 Minute Meals
Dweezil and Lisa
The Essence of Emeril
How to Boil Water
Baking with Julia
A few months ago, I came upon a rerun of Baking with Julia. I was delighted to see Julia Child, but also surprised that this 90-year-old woman had lost none of the charm or skill that made her an international celebrity when I was a child. Fully aware of the recent revival of the food show, I wondered if the new crop of hot chefs could compare with the Queen of Cooking Shows.
Before I started my research -- two weeks of watching cooking series -- I assumed that today's tv cooks, even if they possessed Child's technical prowess, wouldn't be nearly so endearing. I was partly right. In fact, many vibrant personalities host cooking shows, as well as numerous exceptional culinary teachers. Few individuals are both.
First, I checked out the line-up on the Food Network. (Unless otherwise noted, all shows mentioned below are on the Food Network.) I found that cooking shows come in three varieties: shows that teach you how to cook, shows that teach how well someone else can cook, and shows that teach you about the foods you can buy already cooked. Many of the network's stars, such as Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and Bobby Flay, have more than one show, of different types (Ray hosts 30 Minute Meals, an instructional cooking show, and $40 a Day, which shows travelers how to dine out cheaply). And some shows cross categories: Dweezil and Lisa features rock-pop stars and real-life partners Dweezil Zappa and Lisa Loeb, who travel the country, visiting restaurants and noted cooks.
As a man whose culinary proficiency extends as far as ripping open a box and popping its contents in the microwave, I thought the instructional shows might be most useful. But I found that most are designed for persons with advanced abilities and interests. The chefs use ingredients foreign to me, and some are surprisingly imprecise in explaining quantities. The worst offender here is Emeril. In The Essence of Emeril, he suggests adding "pinches," "dashes," and "little bits." Experienced cooks will understand how much of each spice is appropriate; other viewers are likely to ruin their dishes by measuring wrongly. Of course, all recipes featured on the shows are detailed on the network's website, but if I can learn how to cook a dish better from the website than the show, why bother watching the show?
More suited to the novice is Ray's 30 Minute Meals, designed to help the busy person from preparation to presentation in a half hour. Her meals are simple enough for a newbie to duplicate and her explanations are clear. On one episode, Ray prepared Marinated Flank Grill Steak, BLT Smashed Potatoes (the L standing for leeks, not lettuce), and Oven Roasted Broccolini: perfect for a casual dinner. She also offered appropriate substitutions for ingredients viewers may not have in their pantries. I could make these dishes, although I might do it without Ray's excessive enthusiasm: she "loves" everything she cooks. Some time ago, I watched a couple of episodes of her series; at the time, Ray struck me as a dour and angry woman. Now, she has morphed into the Food Network's Head Cheerleader. A middle ground between her old and new personas would serve her series best.
As practical and interesting as 30 Minute Meals can be, Tyler Florence, host of Food 911 and How to Boil Water, is the beginner's best friend. If anyone on the Food Network's roster might follow in Child's footsteps, it is the likable and efficient Florence. His series aren't limited to fundamentals, but teach viewers to make impressive meals. More than any of the cooks I watched, Florence most resembled Child, guiding his audience with patience and good humor.
The most compelling new cooking shows are actually less about cooking than scouting restaurants and food products. In $40 a Day, Ray travels to diverse locales, highlighting local cuisines that suit limited budgets. Ray's bubbly personality is toned down somewhat, as each episode takes the viewer through breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all within the $40 budget, including tips. While the show is ideal for travelers, it also prompts viewers to check out lesser known restaurants in their own neighborhoods in that the series focuses on smaller, out-of-the-way establishments.
For travelers with more money to spend, the Travel Channel's Great Chefs might be more appropriate. Each episode features two or three of the best chefs in a city, as they prepare signature dishes. The Food Network featured several series similar to this one. While this type of show may serve as a good resource for those seeking to impress dates, relatives, or clients, they function primarily as a resource for culinary professionals wanting to stay abreast of the latest trends.
Iron Chef features its chefs competing against guest chefs, each given one hour to prepare a meal organized around one key ingredient, such as lobster or kelp. Viewers have little hope of duplicating these dishes, as the chefs work at lightning speed. Commentators act as though they are calling a championship boxing match while the chefs fly through their routines. Iron Chef makes cooking into a game show, with flashing lights and a hammy host. The only thing missing are Barker's Beauties.
Emeril Live is also inclined to entertainment, showcasing the star more than food. Taking cues from the Tonight Show, he cooks before a live studio audience, and chats up his second banana, that is, the bandleader Leonard "Doc" Gibbs. Lagasse is personable and clearly loves what he is doing, but the audience is filled with the most rabid, over-the-top fans since the Deadheads. They roar at the lamest of jokes, and those few who actually taste what Lagasse prepares act as if Zeus himself had come down from Olympus to hand-feed them. I was frankly stumped by their reactions; when Lagasse announced he was adding garlic to a dish, the audience rose to its feet, cheering wildly.
Regardless of their enthusiasm, Lagasse is no Julia Child. The same can be said of all of the chefs I watched for those two weeks. Viewers could easily duplicate the steps Child described, and didn't need culinary training to make sense of her directions. Warm and winning, she addressed and respected her audience, homemakers trying to prepare tasty meals for their families. When she screwed up, she insisted viewers see the mistake. Home cooks are more likely to make errors than trained chefs, she reasoned, and should be equipped to deal with them.
True masters in any discipline come along rarely. But I was disappointed at the lack of current programming designed to teach people how to prepare food. I didn't become a better cook by watching for two weeks, but that's because good cooking demands dedication. Those who lack the time or initiative to improve their cooking can turn to pre-prepared foods. Still, those who enjoy cooking per se would do well to investigate Ray and Florence's series, and cooking groupies have Emeril Live. As for me, I'm afraid it's back to McDonald's. But that's okay: one of Julia Child's favorite foods was McDonald's French Fries.