Food TV’S Unsung Hero: Mark Bittman

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I am not a minimalist: my desk, like my life, overflows with clutter; I like big, loud, campy entertainment; at MoMA I roll my eyes at “White on White” and bow down before Dali, Kandinsky and Magritte (and not just because I like apples.) You’d think that if presented with a TV show by a man known as “The Minimalist” I’d recoil in horror. I like food that is big, brash and bold; I like abundance–the more ingredients the better; how could I ever like Mark Bittman and believe in what he does?

Well after tonight’s episode of “The Best Food in the World” on PBS, I’m ready to put him on a pedestal. In one single episode–approximately 26 minutes of television (there’s a chunk of advertising before and after)–Bittman, aided with Google Earth (or was it Google Maps?), grazed with cows on Bill Niman’s ranch, talked to the man himself, shot over to Tuscany where he ogled Tuscan cows with Mario Batali, met Marco the butcher who, I’m fairly confident, is the butcher profiled in Bill Buford’s “Heat”, had an Italian steak cook-off with Mario and then, just when you thought he couldn’t do any more, he popped up in Fergus Henderson’s kitchen at St. John and Henderson himself, a world class chef beloved for his fifth quarter cooking (offal: blood and guts), made his signature dish: roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. It was a stunning episode–one of the best examples of food television I’ve seen in a while. Bittman may be a Minimalist in the kitchen, but he’s quite the opposite when it comes to his show: it’s packed with hijinks and hilarity, dramatic cook-offs, food celebrities, dazzling plates of extraordinary food, and, more importantly, good old fashioned information. It leaves the large majority of cooking shows in the dust.

Why is it so good? Well, let’s take for example the cook-off with Mario in the hills of Tuscany. It’s one thing to have a saccharine TV host in a day-glo kitchen telling you how to grill your steak, it’s another thing to have two deeply intelligent cooks–one a chef, one a food writer–spatting and sparring over each and every step along the way. First of all, the steak itself made my jaw drop: it was the biggest steak I’ve ever seen in my life and there were two of them. (I think they were T-bones). Mario took his and rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, threw it on the grill and placed rosemary on the fire to give it an herbal scent. Bittman, The Minimalist, lived up to his title: he took the steak, unadorned, and threw it on the grill.

“I want it to caramelize really well,” he said, “and I think salt draws out moisture, so I’m going to add it at the end.”

“Ok,” said Mario. “But you’ll see with mine, it’s going to get really complex flavor. You’ll see at the end when we taste.”

There’s real tension there. These guys are joshing each other, sure, but beneath the surface each one really believes in what he’s doing. And then Bittman gives Batali a heart attack: he puts butter in a pan, puts the pan on the grill and adds soy sauce.

“Dude!” screams Mario. “We’re in Tuscany.”

Bittman shrugs. “It makes it taste good,” he says, unwilling to be bullied.

The steaks start to take on triumphant golden colors, sizzling and crackling, their aroma wafting through the screen. By the time they were done, I didn’t care which one had oil, which one had butter, I wanted to eat my TV.

“I use a thermometer to see if it’s done,” said Bittman.

“Why would you use a thermometer when you have a perfectly good tool right here,” said Batali, using his hand to press into the meat.

“Well most of my readers wouldn’t know how to do that,” countered Bittman. “I’ve got to give them a temperature.”

[I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.]

These guys were so intent on one-upping each other I really thought the zippers would come undone and Larry Craig would pop out of the bushes with a ruler to judge.

When the steaks were finished, Mario cut into them carefully. Both steaks looked stellar (if a bit underdone) but Mario’s was the winner. “When you’re in Tuscany,” conceded Bittman, “you want to eat steak the Tuscan way.”

The fact that I could tell this story with so much enthusiasm speaks to the inherent quality of the show. Bittman understands that what makes something dramatic is conflict. That’s what makes Top Chef so entertaining, Hell’s Kitchen, and so on. The conflict partly comes from Bittman’s personality–he’s antagonistic–but also from the cleverly devised situations. The set-up of his other PBS show, “Bittman Takes On America’s Chefs,” makes those situations impeccably clear: he goes up against America’s great chefs to prove that simpler can be better. And I’m often embarrassed for him–the chicken with Red Hots he made for Jean-Georges made Diana, my roommate, groan in agony–but it’s part of the same winning formula. Bittman knows his food but, more importantly, he knows how to entertain. And that makes for good TV.

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