What’s Cooking on Television II

By Beacon Staff

Last week I focused on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” my pick as the best food show on television. This week I’ll highlight some of my other faves, and not so faves. I’ll also offer my thoughts on the reality-television trend that emphasizes strange ingredients, unrealistic deadlines and pretentious judges who seem to get off by looking down their noses at the poor fools who volunteer for the humiliation.

Food Network

The only thing you need to know about Food Network is that the channel once had Anthony Bourdain under contract but let him get away. If you’re the Food Network you don’t let the author of the most important food book of the last decade (“Kitchen Confidential”) and host of what would become the best food show (“No Reservations”) move on to the Travel Channel. But that disaster can be seen as a pivotal step in Food’s decade-long regression away from chef-driven cooking shows toward personality-driven, reality programming.

The last decade has seen chefs like Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ming Tsai — who won Food Network’s first Emmy with his show “East Meets West” — and Sara Moultan, executive chef of Gourmet Magazine, migrate away from Food Network to, primarily, public television. Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis and Guy Fieri have been enlisted to fill the void.

Ray, of course, is Food’s breakout star. She even has her own daytime talk show. That said, I’ve never watched Ray prepare a dish and thought “That’s something I need to make.” It’s been years since I’ve watched one of her shows from beginning to end. Her cuisine seems mediocre, and I find her giggly, on-screen persona grating.

It may seem De Laurentiis’ primary attribute is her status as a PNCI graduate — Plunging Neckline Culinary Institute — but she can cook.

Despite her culinary talents, De Laurentiis seems to exemplify the way Food Network is trending. Chefs who look like chefs, i.e. plus-size guys and gals, need not apply. And you can’t just cook anymore, you have to be cooking for some faux event (“I’m having some friends over for girls night and this is what I whipped up”) complete with shots of the gang chowing down for the benefit of the cameras. Finally there’s the taste shot, a talent for which De Laurentiis has no rival. When she finishes a dish she’s ever eager for a bite, and judging by her reaction she must be a great cook. Her eyes roll back, her knees grow weak. I can’t say for sure but I get the impression she can feel the kitchen move when it’s really yummy.

I don’t recall ever seeing Julia Child gush over something she’d just prepared, but that modest sensibility seems quaint today.

One taste shot that works is Fieri’s reaction on his enjoyable “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” The point here is that the host is gushing over the food of some hardworking, smalltime chef finally getting 15 minutes of fame. Fieri has become the face of Food Network in a way that Emeril Lagasse once was. Fieri’s irreverent, hip and has more catch phrases than a battalion of Emerils (though none have risen to the prominence of “Bam!” just yet).

I’m not a big fan of the drift toward reality programming, but along with not caring for Ray, I’ll just accept that I’m in the minority. My teenage daughters love “Chopped,” a popular Food offering that pits chefs against one another, a clock and a basket of secret ingredients that usually includes one totally mismatched item. As the ingredients get weirder, my attention span shrivels like burnt toast.

Cooking Channel

The Cooking Channel is sister channel to Food Network. It targets young, hip and “passionate” foodies. A long-running promo for “Chuck’s Day Off” featured the chef (Chuck Hughes) telling us that his favorite ingredient to cook with is “passion.” I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound sanitary. I have a more sensible favorite ingredient: bacon. But I get it, Chuck. Food is more than just calories. It’s about who and what we are; it’s our identity.

My favorites on “Cooking” are Batali’s “Molto Mario,” which would be a contender for best-show honors if production had not ended nearly 10 years ago, “French Food at Home” with Laura Calder, and “Day Off,” sans the secret ingredient.

Travel Channel

While “No Reservations” is unrivaled in the world of food television, much of the Travel Channel’s food offerings — “Man Versus Food” and “Bizarre Foods” — seem like cheap carny acts in comparison.

Public Television

Not much to pick from here, at least on local cable. “America’s Test Kitchen” applies the quintessential PBS no-thrills approach to food. The results are always informative, though sometimes not the most engaging. At least they’ll never toss someone off the show with a sneer for failing to make an appetizing meal out of duck testicles.