What’s Cooking on TV

By Beacon Staff

I’d be giving the Food Network too much credit if I argued it has revolutionized gastronomy. The revolution was really in mass communication, where an ever-expanding selection of cable channels, along with the Internet, forever knee-capped mass market offerings and ushered in the era of specialty programming.

Information is now ubiquitous; niché selections on television are endless. If you want to watch Italian soccer, you’ll find it. Always wanted to install solid lifters in a small block Chevy? It’s there too. And if you want to learn how to brine a pork chop so it remains juicy even if it’s a little over-cooked, the Food Network, riding the wave of the information revolution, is the place to go.

Before Food’s launch in 1993 you could find a handful of cooking shows on television led by the seminal genius of Julia Child on PBS. There were a few more on the networks; Graham Kerr’s goofy “Galloping Gourmet” comes to mind. My favorite prior to the Food TV era was Jeff Smith’s brilliant “The Frugal Gourmet.” Unfortunately Smith’s career went down in flames in 1997 due to a sex abuse scandal involving teen boys. The show hasn’t been seen since.

With the 24-7 onslaught of food programming there’s some good, and quite a bit of bad, to sort through. This week we’ll look at my pick as the best food show on television. Next week I’ll consider some of the other standouts, and some lesser examples that are about as pleasing as a well-done rib eye.

Travel Channel’s No Reservations

Anthony Bourdain published “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” in 2000. It was the most important “food” book of the decade and it elevated Bourdain’s status as one of the most important personalities in the world of gastronomy. If you haven’t read “Confidential” just imagine Led Zeppelin-like levels of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll indulgence, only the characters are all wearing chef’s whites.

I’m not sure you can consider yourself an authentic Montana foodie if you don’t have the 2009 Livingston-based episode of Bourdain’s “No Reservations” saved on your DVR. Bourdain dines at the Murray Hotel, fly fishes, eats antelope liver (prairie foie gras) and hangs out with America’s greatest living author and adopted Montanan, Jim Harrison. They cook together, chat about writing and trout, and reflect on the magnificence of place that lures so many non-natives to our great state.

The 2011 season demonstrated the breadth of the show’s reach. The first episode had Bourdain visiting earthquake ravaged Port-a-Prince, Haiti. It’s a haunting hour. In an early scene Bourdain seeks out street food, a staple of the program. But this time as he sits down to sample three full plates he realizes he is surrounded by hungry children, children for whom a day with one plate of food is like their birthday, Christmas and a last-minute reprieve from the governor all rolled into one. In what he thinks would be a humane gesture, Bourdain persuades his producers to buy out the street vendor and have her distribute her day’s fare for free. As word spreads a near riot breaks out as the children are crowded out of line by starving adults. In the voice-over Bourdain notes that in a place of devastation such as Haiti, a simple humanitarian gesture may not be possible.

Don’t expect to find the vivid reality of life in Haiti depicted this honestly anywhere else on television. Not on PBS. Not on the cable news shows. And certainly not on the networks.

In August “No Reservations” had Bourdain in Spain for maybe the upteenth time to attend the closing of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. El Bulli was arguably the world’s greatest restaurant, and inarguably ground zero of the avant garde deconstructionist food movement.

In one scene as Bourdain watches an El Bulli chef assemble dozens of delicate wontons made with rose petals rather than pastry skins, he muses: “Pastry chefs everywhere –when they see this – will gape in fear, and awe, and wonder. I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves ‘What do I do now?’”

Even if you’ve never heard of El Bulli you may have seen Adrià’s most famous creation: the liquid olive. The liquid olive is just what it sounds like, olive juice, only Adrià drops a spoonful of the green stuff into a solution of alginate which causes a skin to form around the juice. The liquid olive, which is presented to the diner on a spoon, looks like any old olive. When you bite it, however, the olive floods the taste buds with flavor in a way the grown-on-a-tree variety never could.

It’s kind of like mainlining, only for foodies rather than junkies.

Bourdain moves effortlessly across both extremes, food in Haiti as essential, life-giving nourishment, and at El Bulli, a Michelin three-star restaurant where food is elevated to its highest romantic, emotional ideal.

“No Reservations” is more than just the best food show on television. It’s the best show on television, period.