The Top 5 Instructional Cooking Shows You Can Watch Online

Yesterday, buried in my post about Vegas Uncork’d, was a mini tribute to Mary Sue Milliken and a rant about how Food Network, and Food TV in general, no longer features shows with deeply knowledgable, seasoned chefs with a flair for instruction. Then I realized it hardly matters because most of those shows I loved (love) are available online. So what follows are five shows, all watchable right now, that I consider the very best in recorded cooking instruction; shows I go back to again and again because every time I watch them, I learn something new.

1. Molto Mario

There’s never been a show like it and there will never be again. What Mario Batali accomplished at the start of his T.V. career is, as far as I’m concerned, the best cooking show in the history of television. Here is a man who did his homework, who knows Italy better than most Italians and who can speak eloquently, enthusiastically and informatively about almost anything having to do with Italian food and cooking. That’s just the talking part. The cooking part is even more incredible because in a really short amount of time, he accomplishes what would take most of us hours in the kitchen. He rolls fresh pasta dough, stuffs it, cuts it into ravioli all while braising chicken in red wine and baking a cake. As a bonus, it’s always fun to see who his guests are: he’s had everyone from Jake Gyllenhaal to Ruth Reichl sitting at his counter, watching in awe as he plates up something astonishingly delicious. Hulu only puts up a few episodes at a time, but they’re refreshed often. Click here for the Molto Mario page.

2. Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home

For a while, I would rent Julia Child DVDs on Netflix and watch, amused and totally rapt, as she trussed a chicken or demonstrated a beurre blanc without breaking a sweat. Those original “French Chef” shows are historic, Smithsonian-worthy affairs. Everyone should see them. That said, my preference is for a show she did later in her career with the equally charming, authentically French chef Jacques Pepin. Their chemistry is legendary (as you can see in the video above) but, more importantly, their interactions illustrate something significant about food and cooking: one person’s absolute is another person’s absolutely not. For example, Julia salts the burger meat before making a burger; Jacques refuses to salt his burger. Which is correct? What the show reveals is that it’s all about personal preference and, more importantly, experiencing joy in the kitchen. Click here for the Julia & Jacques page.

3. Lidia’s Italy

Mario’s show is a macho take on Italian food: every other episode, flames shoot out of his pan when he adds something to the overheated oil. Lidia’s take is slightly softer, but no less informed. While Mario surrounds himself with celebrities and colleagues from the food world, Lidia surrounds herself with family: her son Joe (incidentally, Mario’s business partner), her daughter Tanya, her grandchildren and her mother Erminia. The presence of family informs the food that she makes; this is the stuff you can easily serve up at a family gathering and everyone will want bread to swipe up anything that remains on the platter. While Mario’s show involves lots of talking about Italy, Lidia’s show actually takes you there. Funny, though, how those segments aren’t nearly as compelling as the segments where Lidia’s back in her own kitchen, talking about Italy and cooking up a storm. Some of her recipes (like this one) are absolute staples in my kitchen. Click here for the Lidia’s Italy page.

4. From Martha’s Kitchen

She’s an absolute scold, a frequent killjoy, but damn if this woman doesn’t know how to cook. Martha’s show is soothing and serious all at the same time. She speaks with the intensity of a lawyer but what she’s talking about hardly merits the tone (the stiffness of egg whites, for example). On one hand, you can say she sucks the fun out of everything and yet watching her cook is absolutely mesmerizing. This is the show I watch when I want to zonk out on the couch and not think about anything at all. Occasionally, I learn something. More often than not, I roll my eyes and laugh. (Apparently, so does her daughter.) Click here for the From Martha’s Kitchen page.

5. Avec Eric

It’s rare to meet a four-star chef as charismatic, likable and down-to-earth as Eric Ripert. He’s clearly beloved by Anthony Bourdain, who tours around with him doing live shows, as well as fans of Top Chef who recognize him as a judge. So why wasn’t his cooking show more popular? Well, let’s be frank: it’s kind of boring. Ripert is a practicing Buddhist and this show has the energy to reflect that. It’s meditative. It’s slow. The biggest problem is that it’s 90% travel and 10% cooking, a formula that’s entirely backwards. We want to watch Ripert cook, not walk through a farmer’s market with him in Rome. That said: the cooking segments (which come at the end of the episodes) are positively stellar. If you’ve ever heard the expression “cook clean” you can do no better than to watch Ripert slice a carrot, sear a fish, drizzle a salad with olive oil. His movements are so graceful you almost forget you’re watching a master chef at work. (His other online cooking show, On The Table, where guests cook for him, is also fun to watch.) Click here for the Avec Eric page.

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