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.
Tag Archives: Food TV
With The Taste launching on ABC and Top Chef enjoying its 74th season, I’d like to offer up a radical idea: the best cooking competition show on TV is Chopped.
These other cooking shows, with their high-stakes drama and interpersonal conflicts, are 30% cooking, 70% fluff. Chopped is 90% cooking, 10% fluff. Iron Chef comes the closest to that ratio, but Iron Chef insists on a level of theatrics (see: The Chairman) that detracts from the show’s authenticity. Chopped has a format that couldn’t be more straightforward. Round one: four contestants make an appetizer from a mystery basket, one is eliminated. Round two: the remaining three make an entree from a mystery basket, one is eliminated. In the final round, the remaining two duke it out over dessert.
This morning I received an e-mail from Brad Parsons (author of an awesome new book about bitters called, appropriately enough, Bitters) that said the following: “I was watching the Suzanne Goin (who I know you adore) special on Food Network (or Cooking Channel?) last night and they had some b-roll of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market in the beginning and I swear there was a shot of you (or your doppelganger) in the beginning browsing the stalls. Same haircut, glasses, plaid shirt, canvas jacket. I’m not sure if you were already in LA when they filmed this or if it’s just an illusion, but wanted to let you know in case you haven’t seen it.”
Mr. Game Show was a Hanukkah gift that my parents bought me one year in the 1980s. It looked like a regular board game (small tokens that you moved around a large, printed board) except there, in the middle, was a plastic figurine that talked. “Hello!” it announced in a Guy Smiley voice, “I’m Mr. Game Show! Who’s ready to play a game?”
Mr. Game Show’s Mr. Gameshow had slick-backed hair and big white teeth. He embodied everything that was false and mockable about that most loathsome TV type: the game show host. As time marched on, and we moved through the 80s to the 90s to today, the TV landscape has shifted enough that, even though there are still game show hosts (Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek haven’t gone anywhere) there’s a new contender for that most loathsome TV type: the food show host.
Read my reaction on The Food Network site here!
Check out my reaction on The Food Network Site: click here to read.
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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More Amateur Gourmet:
Favorite Food Sites:
- 101 Cookbooks
- Chez Pim
- Chocolate and Zucchini
- David Lebovitz
- Serious Eats
- Simply Recipes
- Slice NY
- The Food Section