I admit I was seduced into the world of food by a beautiful woman. This was in my college days and I recall waking up in the mid-afternoon during the summer when I was jobless and lazy. I turned on the telly to hear a soft, soothing, but articulate voice from a light-showered kitchen. Her name? Giada de Laurentiis, of Everyday Italian. No, I didn’t wonder why her head was so big or why her shirts were often so low-cut. I was amazed by the food – its beauty, its simplicity, and its utter allure. I remember watching Ming Tsai and Julia Child during my youth, when cooking shows were sparse and used studio lighting. The recipes weren’t the easiest, but they were delicious.
Giada was my first experience with the new guard for food shows, ones that were sexy, fun, and interesting to the casual viewer. I think this has degraded over the years with the expansion of Food Network’s main marketing base to the average, suburban American watching their shows on their large HDTV’s both midday and after work. I have categorized my reviews in three parts: WATCH IT NOW, TIVO/DVR IT, CHANGE THE CHANNEL. Here’s my review and thoughts of some of the major shows to hit television over the past few years:
30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray
I remember watching this during the early days and thinking: “Dang, she’s really cute!” Then she turned into the Joker, she started making up her own food terminology, and croaking out words that were done in by the chain smoking. Not cool. These days Ray’s an afterthought for the food community, though she did a lot to bring Food Network up to speed with the mainstream. I still miss those old days when she was more calm and composed. I’ve seen a few minutes here and there of her new morning show and I think it’s both lame and useless.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Good Eats with Alton Brown
Aside from the schizophrenic production values brought about mainly from Alton’s past career in the film industry, this show does a good job of both educating and entertaining the casual and serious cook. Foodies love it because the science of cooking gets demystified. I watched this show for hours on end, wondering which great subject would come up next. I especially love the clever titles for each show (“Tender is the Loin”…like F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s book). Sometimes the recipes Alton uses are a bit too much for the average cook and caters more to the purist (which I’m not necessarily opposed to). Overall, a fun, pleasant show that’s good for everyone. The show really lends to being recorded and viewed at any point since there isn’t a specific season or type of cuisine it caters to.
Everyday Italian with Giada de Laurentiis
I mentioned this earlier, but I’ll just say that her head is NOT THAT BIG. It’s her hair, I say J. Plus, no one ever faulted Nicole Kidman’s beauty because her head was large. Then again, Kidman has a 6 foot tall frame where has Giada’s tiny body might just get encompassed by her large head. Still, it doesn’t matter! What’s important is that Giada actually cooks and teaches people how to cook through her show. The recipes are often dead simple and were a perfect way for me to get more used to working in the kitchen. People also comment on her annoying use of perfect Italian pronunciation. I say, GET OVER IT, she was born in Rome and has every right to speak like that if she wants to. Do you think people would get mad at me for saying, “bulgogi” or “kalbi” like “BUUUL KOGI” (usually much softer intonation) or “KAHL-BEE” like some white dude? (no offense against white dudes) Let her say “pah-sta” or “par-mee-gi-AHno reh-gee-AHno” however the heck she likes.
Anyways, I’ll be the biggest fan of Giada so if you can’t put up with that just wait for my next diatribe.
WATCH IT NOW (natch)
Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee
Anthony Bourdain has already shredded her to bits. The whole concept of this show just reinforces America’s inability to cook properly and sustain a reasonable cuisine and food culture that goes beyond processed food, frozen food, and corporate America. This show just makes me sick. I hear defenders of Miss Lee saying “she’s got big jugs” or “she’s a smokin’ hot Texas housewife.” PLEASE. I might live in California and pretty much despise what might often be called “the flyovers,” but I still respect good food. America does not have to dumb down and learn how to cook by taking things out of the freezer section and popping them in the microwave. I get seriously annoyed by watching dozens of people heat up their daily lunches from Lean Cuisines every day, only to complain about how fat they’re getting or how sucky their jobs are. How about start eating better and your life will be better? Hit up the farmer’s markets, do some damn prep work, and actually COOK for once! You’ll learn next to nothing by watching this show.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri
I have a friend of mine who’s still in “college-mode” and complains because he ends up watching this show at 12AM and can’t stave off his incredible hunger after watching some of the things Guy Fieri eats. I’ll be honest and say that I did watch the first season of Next Food Network Star, when Guy Fieri won, and thought that he deserved it. His show is classified as, “Dude who likes to cook but doesn’t want to seem like a wuss doing it”. His normal show, Guy’s Big Bite, has a pool table and other traditional “Guy’s Room” appointments, so that men watching the show won’t feel like their masculinity is getting pulled from them. Nice ploy.
Anyways, back to Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, I feel greasy just after watching this, but it’s a fun show to watch when you’re with a bunch of dudes and feel like eating up a storm. I recommend just leaving the house and going to Fred 62, Swingers, or even IHOP and taking care of business.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Molto Mario with Mario Batali
Another show I used to watch in my early days, I gained a huge respect for Batali and his show that, as Bourdain puts is, is simply too good for television. This show should be on PBS, not Food Network, but it’s been a mainstay before the days when Food Network’s programming directors said, “hey, we can get more ad dollars by catering to the ‘average American’; screw shows that actually teach about food and cooking, let’s put some attractive, multi-cultural stars and a bunch of cooking competitions on – people love that!”
You can learn a TON about Italian food and cooking from this show. I wish the DVD sets were on sale. I could watch this for hours on end. My dream was to be one of the lucky people that get to sit there on the set and watch Batali personally cook for them. The smells, sights, and colors are just amazing, even with generally rudimentary production values. This one should be in the pantheon of food shows, along with Julia and Pepin. Yeap, I said it.
WATCH IT NOW (OR TIVO/DVR if you can’t watch it midday)
Boy Meets Grill with Bobby Flay & Throwdown with Bobby Flay
Flay’s mug is polarizing. People either love it or hate it. I actually think this show fills a good niche for the BBQ lover or the guy that likes to do most of his cooking on the grill. I have a friend like this and respect that approach. There’s nothing more American than a grill so I think this show’s quite alright. I also like that Flay cooks with brash flavors and fresh foods, teaching people methods and techniques. This is an overall good show, though the New York-centric approach can be a little annoying (I guess Giada’s show is more L.A.-centric so that compensates). Finally, I like the cocktails he makes at the end, as a precursor to the big cocktail boom that’s happening in the U.S. right now.
As for Throwdown, I think the show’s decent in concept, but pretty unfair to the contestants. I find that more often than not, Flay ends up winning because he knows he’ll be competing whereas the hapless people that are featured in the show don’t know what’s coming to them. I doubt Flay made better cupcakes than the ones at Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock, but he had the chance to outdo her more classic flavors and make weird flavors to impress the judges. Flay also comes off as falsely humble. Sometimes this can be fun to watch, but generally it’s just something you should skip.
TIVO/DVR for Boy Meets Grill , BUT CHANGE THE CHANNEL on Throwdown
Iron Chef America (ICA)
I’ve had so many people who tell me that this show is a cheap, crappy copy of the original Japanese show. People that say this haven’t seen more than two episodes of the Japanese version and probably no full episodes of the American version. Problem is, when I watched the original ones, the subtitles were funny and the show was rather sensational, but I didn’t really get the food or know any of the chefs. Notable exceptions are when Bobby Flay cut himself, electrocuted himself, and stamped on the cutting board (a hugely disgraceful thing to do in Japan) after finally winning. Other than that, the annuls of the show are buried in worn down, cheesy photo books found in used bookstores (I’ve seen many of these copies). No one cares.
In the American version, you have some great Food Network personalities (namely Alton Brown) hosting the show and solid contenders going against people we recognize (except Cat Cora, who doesn’t even own her own restaurant). I think Morimoto, Batali, and even Flay for all his antics are great Iron Chefs. Likewise I think Michael Symon is a solid Iron Chef after winning the heated and well-played competition that aired last year.
I appreciate that well-known chefs from major metropolitan areas have competed on the show. I even asked Chris Cosentino after I dined at Incanto in SF and he said it was quite a rush. They had no time to prepare and had to invent each dish on the fly. That most of the dishes come out as successful is pretty amazing if you consider that. I love that L.A. chefs like Neal Fraser, Robert Gadsby (formerly Noe), Michael Cimarusti, and more have competed on the show, representing our city.
Also, the judges are people you recognize: Ted Allen, Michael Ruhlman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Dana Cowin (questionable choice), and that really bourgeois critic for Bon Appetit. Generally the judges are pretty good at determining who the better cook was. Finally, the dishes, concepts, and approaches to the dishes aren’t in unfamiliar, quasi-French/Nouveau and Japanese-style like the original, but discernable New American or even “avant-garde” (It was pretty cool seeing that chef from Moto on ICA). This show is probably the smartest foodie show on Food Network’s primetime slots right now, other than Good Eats. If you think ICA is doing something wrong, watch the show, see who’s actually cooking, see what they’re making, and then come to a decision. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. (oh, they really should get rid of Cat Cora, I’m sorry..)
WATCH IT NOW
Emeril Live/Essence of Emeril
You’ve probably seen the primetime version that’s a cross between Jay Leno and Rachael Ray’s daytime cooking show on CBS without the humor, charm, or glamour. It’s just weird to see Emeril just roving around that stage like a circus freak. Contrast this to his daytime show, where he’s calm, collected, and truly passionate about the food he’s making. I learned a lot about classic French techniques (the easier ones) when he made simple comfort food. That show’s worth DVRing and keeping saved in case you want to learn some classic American and French dishes for entertaining.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL on Emeril Live, TIVO/DVR Essence of Emeril
Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten
Every person’s dream grandmother or great aunt, Ina Garten is portly and happy and living in the bubble of the Hamptons. It’s pretty far removed from Southern California, but I can imagine life in Newport Beach being similar to the one Garten lives. The recipes in this show are pretty useful and the cooking is fresh, simple, and beginner-friendly. Garten really understands the anxieties of young women who are trying to learn cooking and makes the approach not only easy and enjoyable, but fun. Every day’s a lunch party, dinner party, or picnic at the beach, and the food is likewise easy-going and approachable. There isn’t much to rag or hate on Garten except that one day someone may look like her if they continue eating the amount of butter, fat, and sugar that she does. Except to me, that’s really not an issue at all. I think at that age and point in your life, you’re better off enjoying yourself, eating it up, and soaking in life. Of course, health is important so if you’re going to eat all that, you should beware the health effects it may have, but based on the careful editing of this show, all we know is the paradise of the Hamptons.
This is a new show that features a fetching young urbanite that tall, skinny, brunette, and articulate – perhaps philosophical yang to Giada’s yin in the world of urban food culture. People ask Aida Mollenkamp various questions about cooking or food that can help them in their weekly meals, and some lucky nerd guy in khakis and button down mans the unmarked Apple laptop for more answers. There was a Yelp thread recently that discussed the beauty comparison between Aida and Giada and while Aida is definitely pretty (don’t worry, that’s sanctioned by my girlfriend so I’m not crossing any boundaries), Giada is much hotter. I think the concept of the show isn’t anything new. It’s like the now ancient “Cooking Live with Sara Moulton”, but with a more attractive, younger host and funny nerd guy that’s actually pretty lucky to be around her.
I’ll watch the show some more and see if it’s of any culinary use, but I think there are tons of better food shows. Attractive people is definitely a plus, but I’d rather have Julia Child’s monstrous 6 foot frame and granny-like demeanor telling me how to cook than a hot young co-ed. Or…do I?…
TIVO/DVR IT for further investigation
Ultimate Recipe Showdown
This show is not only idiotic and boring, it’s lame! Why the hell do we care if some random person makes the purportedly best savory soufflé out of a group of ten contestants (I haven’t actually seen the entire show, but I saw enough to get the point). Cooking competitions, unless they feature golden effigies of world-famous chefs (Bocuse d’Or) or wannabe chefs duking it out with nasty verbiage on reality TV (see my Top Chef review coming soon), just plain suck. I don’t know which part of the American psyche (maybe the county fair-blue ribbon dreamers) this show caters to, but I don’t know anyone that likes it. But apparently advertisers will support its primetime slot.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
A cheap knockoff of Top Chef and Ted Allen knows it (though he’s cashing his paychecks and laughing all the way to the bank). That weird sheen in the cinematography is just weird and doesn’t do anything to make the show better. The contestants generally can’t cook (on a previous one, no one had ever cooked with baby octopus before and had to use it as a main ingredient. What the hell). The executive who thought of this show should be fired and some lower executive from Bravo should be hired to make a real competitor to Top Chef.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Paula’s Home Cooking with Paula Deen
A Southern version of Ina Garten who’s celebrity has taken her to much farther places. Paula Deen is equally lovable so I can’t really say anything too mean about her other than the fact that I do believe that health is in danger if one were to really follow all of her recipes (and the accompany lipid-madness). The actual cooking show is still useful for those wanting to learn Southern cooking and her sons, while generally annoying and nepotistic groupies, add a bit of flavor to a show that does well at catering to that part of the country. I like imitating her unnecessarily heavy Southern accent (HAIE, yA’LL! WE GOIN MAKE A WUNDERFUL PEEE-CAN PIE TONIGHT!), but my girlfriend disdains such behavior. So prevent myself from doing so I no longer watch this show.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Some damn good recipes with some sharp production values. Crisp editing, nice use of sound and color, and a pretty good host who knows what he’s doing. I’ve used many of the recipes from this show in my own cooking and find it pretty satisfactory. Tyler’s a cool guy and the chicks dig him. I watch so I can follow him (or imitate him rather). He’s got this ease in the kitchen and a way of making food look so damn delicious that you just can’t help but watch. The structure of the show lends to an entertaining half hour (he usually travels to the place of the dish’s origin near the end).
Voluptuous, seductive, and dreamy, this is like every guy’s dream best-friend’s mom (did you get that?). Nigella might not be hot in the commercial sense, but she knows how to seduce one with the other spectrum of femininity. That said, this show blows. She uses all this half-cooked stuff from Tesco (the origin of Fresh & Easy), pretends to take public transit (and those cool black cabs) in London, and whips together meals to be eaten in less time than it took to prepare. It’s a bad progression from where she started and I think she can make better television. But those legends of Nigella Feasts and the allure of her (British) sensibility and allure in kitchen makes one wonder how they heck they made this show into something so banal and…rushed.
Jamie at Home
Easily one of my favorite new cooking shows, where the rustic production values really coincide with Jamie’s fresh, rustic cuisine made mostly from his own garden. Oliver’s just a hilarious guy, spewing his little “isms” and methods that are sometimes useful, but more often just entertaining (like when he flips this piece of fish that he’s grilling outside – that sound and chuckle he makes is probably one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen in my entire life – Chappelle’s Show included).
I ended up purchasing the cookbook and find it helpful as well, especially for Californians who have access to high-quality produce without having to grow it in their own yard. I want to buy the DVD set of this and try to live Oliver’s idyllic life in the English countryside one day. Yeah, I’m saving up for that wood-fired oven so I can make me some delicious pizzas and lamb roasts (Christine will like that proposition).
WATCH IT NOW AND TIVO/DVR IT
These are just the shows that are on Food Network. There are a ton of programs that are on other networks that deserve discussion, which I will tackle in the next week.