A Return to Cooking?

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.

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