Feb 24, 201112:00 AM
Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

A Return to Cooking?

Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton

There was a time when cooking shows were more about cooking than personality or product placement. That’s certainly how I remember things watching Julia Child, Jeff Smith (the “Frugal Gourmet”) and the multitude of chefs on the locally produced Great Chefs series. (I’d provide a link to the Great Chefs website, but there is embedded music involved, and I will not link to websites with embedded music if I can avoid it. Google “Great Chefs” if you’re interested enough to put up with that bullshit.) Update: I received an email from the folks behind the Great Chefs website, and the embedded music has been removed. Check the show's site out here.

Books have been written about how a certain percentage of our population became fascinated by food, cooking and restaurants in the 1980s and how that movement exploded the number of fine-dining restaurants and expanded food culture generally in the United States. This is not the place and I am not the person to recount that history. What I will say is that despite the atrocity of its website, to this day there has never been anything more compelling in food television than watching chefs on the Great Chefs series preparing food for the camera. 

At some point, advertisers realized the people watching cooking shows were a valuable demographic. Cooking shows went mainstream, and there was an inevitable shift from serious cooking to more crowd-pleasing presentations. From Julia Child and documentary-style footage of chefs cooking in restaurant kitchens, we progressed to food personalities who cooked but whose main appeal was showmanship or kitsch. A lot of food writers have blamed Emeril Lagasse for this, but I think that misses the point. Emeril was a catalyst; he was a talented, charismatic man in the right place at the right time to ride the wave of interest in food and cooking. So what if his show was more showmanship than craft? He got people interested in eating well, and that embiggened* the pie for everyone interested in food.

But of course things didn’t stop at Emeril throwing 30 garlic cloves into a pan. Emeril, at least, was more or less cooking. To cut to the chase, from the point that people realized how much money was involved in the “foodie” cultural phenomenon, it was inevitable that we’d end up with Guy Fieri.

My mother taught me that if I can’t say anything nice about someone, I should simply hold my tongue. Usually, I follow that advice, but Guy Fieri is so ridiculous that I don’t feel bad about mocking him. He’s sentient hair masquerading as a cook, a jackass who wouldn’t know good food if he was force-fed like a goose by Joël Robuchon. His mere existence is an offense, and that he’s popular is surely a sign of the end times. I can almost see him, with his slow thighs and his gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun lamp that gives him his fake tan, slouching toward Hollywood to be born.

But I digress. Things are not quite so dire as I pretend. There are still shows about cooking, and even some shows that are not strictly about cooking that are entertaining and informative. Say what you will about Anthony Bourdain, his No Reservations on the Travel Channel is good television. Despite the increasingly blatant product placement, Bravo’s Top Chef still holds my interest, and I must admit a soft spot for both the original Japanese and the American version of Iron Chef. Add to those the two local chefs who have taken to the airwaves with shows that focus on food and cooking, and it’s just possible to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Chef John Besh’s New Orleans will be airing on PBS stations nationwide before long. I had a chance to watch one of the shows being filmed and have also been given a screener of one of the completed episodes, and I like what I’ve seen. The show is a throwback to the stuff I watched decades ago, with Besh’s cooking as the focus. In the episode I received as a screener, he fillets a speckled trout and prepares trout amandine. He explains that the name “amandine” refers not to the almonds that garnish the dish but to the dish’s origin in Germany. If you’ve met him, it will come as no surprise that Besh is a natural in front of the camera, and the 26 episodes he filmed in New Orleans are, I hope, a sign that actual cooking shows can compete in the television marketplace.

Donald Link’s show, Taste of Place, is also about cooking, but he goes farther afield than Besh. Link’s travels take him from California to West Virginia, visiting such places as Margarita’s Tortilla Factory in Lockhart, Texas, where he watches tortillas, tamales and tacos being prepared. In Frazier’s Bottom, W.Va., Link butchers and slow-roasts a pig from Woodlands Pork. Link is a soft-spoken guy, but he lights up when he’s discussing food and cooking with his hosts, acting as the perfect narrator to what’s shown on the screen. There’s a good bit of cooking involved, too. A Valentine’s Day show has Link preparing individual molten chocolate cakes. The camera work is excellent; the entire production is slick without being over-produced. The focus is always on the food, and Link’s experience in professional kitchens allows him to ask the perfect questions of his hosts. The videos are hosted at Link’s website and also at delish.com.

I don’t know if either Besh or Link is going to be as popular as Fieri, but I know they’re both far more talented, and their shows are far more interesting than just about anything on mainstream food TV.



*It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
 

Reader Comments:
Feb 24, 2011 11:18 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I agree that both are really good chefs. However, Besh has spread himself too thin and his restaurants are suffering. The one at the WWII museum is really bad and Domenica has not added one new thing since they opened.

Feb 24, 2011 11:55 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Stage Door Canteen at WWII Museum on the Valantine's Day Dinner/Show/Dance. 2/14/2011
SENTIMENTAL BIG BAND SHOW was fantastic !!!!! Dinner there(by John Besh's restaurant at WWII) was a disaster...Omit Dinner and just buy the show tickets only.
1. Beet Salad...lots of greens and only 2 slices of beets at the bottom. Why John Besh called it Beet Salad, should call it a Green Salad instead. Oyster with a hint of Ginger...two small unrecognizable oysters inside of glue paste like thing in a cup. This sauce tasted like a paper paste I made at my elementary school art project a long time ago.
2. Pork dish was OK but very salty. My Grouper was a good looking large piece, but once I put it in my mouth, I smelled and tasted a rotten fish meat. I spit it up and end of my entree.
3. We selected strawberry cake...we put all of our hopes on this last course so that we would not lose our confidence in John Besh.The dessert plate had one tiny slice of strawberry on it, with a heart shaped chocolate covered thing(cake?). The menu did not mentioned chocolate cake. This cake was sliced and had strawberry pieces in it. The looks and the taste of this so called cake was EXACTLY a Moon Pie !!! I just wonder if John Besh bought Moon Pie in Mobile and shaped it like a heart and stuffed stawberries in it.
My word for John Besh....You could be fooling a general public, but you can not fool world travelers and connoisseur !!!!!!!
People be aware....read lots of reviews and invest your time and money.

Feb 24, 2011 12:04 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Actually, Domenica changes both the food and drink menus regularly. If you ate there anon 1, you would recognize that!

Feb 24, 2011 12:20 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

We ate there two weeks ago and it had been several months since we had last been because the menu was the same old thing. Well, it was the same, nothing new. We are foodies and Domenica is a fun lively, place but I differ with you in that the menu has NOT changed at all.

Feb 24, 2011 12:26 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Please. As if John Besh isn't riding on the coat tails of Barnum's Emeril Lagasse whilst capitalizing on the post-Katrina rage for New Orleans. As above, he's spread too thin, dabbling in too many different concepts. And every time I've seen him on national television, he talks about "authentic" Louisiana food, then delivers something he adopted from elsewhere or downright made up, subsequently adding to the misery of those of us who have travelled or lived elsewhere and suffer stupid statements about how shrimp and grits are a New Orleans dish. I have no problem with tailoring old dishes or creating new ones, but "authentic" is a word with an actual definition. I simply don't get the love fest for Besh, particularly amongst locals. But I'll give him this: he struck while the iron was hot.

Feb 24, 2011 12:34 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Domenica has not changed its menu since we have been going there and we used to go on a regular basis. We like the atmosphere but we dont go often because the menu stays the same!!

Feb 24, 2011 12:37 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Only in New Orleans would we be having a food fight!!

We take our food serious here.

Feb 25, 2011 03:36 pm
 Posted by  Robert

"Only in New Orleans would we be having a food fight!!

We take our food serious here."

Indeed.

Feb 27, 2011 01:01 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Two of my favorite dishes at Domenica- meatballs and polenta and the mortadella pate- have recently been removed from the menu to make way for different items. They frequently change the pastas and pizzas. John Besh isn't really the chef at Domenica, so why all the hate?

Feb 28, 2011 11:20 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

See the web site for the restaurant:

Domenica: A Chef John Besh Restaurant

If he takes the credit for it being his restaurant, then he should also take the criticism.

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Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

about

Robert D. Peyton was born at Ochsner Hospital and, apart from four years in Tennessee for college and three years in Baton Rouge for law school, has lived here his entire life. He is a strong believer in the importance of food to our local culture and in the importance of our local food culture, generally. He has practiced law since 1994, and began writing about food on his website, www.appetites.us, in 1999. He mainly wrote about partying that year, obviously.

In 2006, New Orleans Magazine named Appetites the best food blog in New Orleans. The choice was made relatively easy due to the fact that Appetites was, at the time, the only food blog in New Orleans.

He began writing the Restaurant Insider column for New Orleans Magazine in 2007 and has been published in St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana Life and New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles magazines. He is the only person he knows personally who has been interviewed in GQ magazine, albeit for calling Alan Richman a nasty name. He is not proud of that, incidentally. (Yes, he is.)

Robert’s maternal grandmother is responsible for his love of good food, and he has never since had fried chicken or homemade biscuits as good as hers. He developed his curiosity about restaurant cooking in part from the venerable PBS cooking show "Great Chefs" and has an extensive collection of cookbooks, many of which do not require coloring, and some of which have not been defaced.

Robert lives in Mid-City with his wife Eve and their three children, and is fond of receiving comments and emails. Please humor him.

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