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February 11, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—February 12, 2008

A friend of mine mentioned Jamie Oliver, of The Naked Chef fame, at dinner the other night, and I was reminded of the whole issue of food television. My personal experience with this medium began with Oliver, whom I worshipped as a middle-schooler. In his show, he’s constantly nipping around London on his scooter, picking up fresh herbs from his suburban friends, and then dry-rubbing them onto various large cuts of meat, and so on. It’s a very homemade-pizza, fish-roasted-in-a-tinfoil-envelope style of cooking, of which I’m not terribly fond anymore. But it’s certainly fun to watch.

The tension with all food television is between the often contradictory demand we put on it: that it provide a sensuous diversion, while also giving lessons that are—at least on some level—remotely practical. On the one hand, cooking shows are supposed to delight us with exotic sights and sounds. Men in tall hats with foreign accents must flay and rend large pieces of meat at blinding speed; nondescript chunks of highly non-kosher protein are magically made edible through their suspension in colorful aspic. On the other hand, the experience is supposed to be educational: You should come away from a good show having learned how to make something you might actually be able to cook.

Despite my deep aesthetic misgivings over the simple, “rustic,” salty food that he makes on it, The Naked Chef delivers on both counts. The food you can learn to make from watching Oliver is neither too tricky nor too expensive for the average aspiring cook, and the presentation is lively and colorful. Conversely, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation, which I enjoy to no end, fails. In the show, which features the colorful former New York cook traveling the world seeking exotic edibles, you may learn that the better Singaporean noodle shops are located in the middle-class neighborhoods near the center of town, or that roasted warthog anuses are not terribly tasty, but there’s no real lesson to take home at the end.

Molto Mario—now, alas, canceled—was a veritable cornucopia of endlessly fascinating and useful information, on everything from the history of the culinary use of fennel pollen to basic knife technique. I also always found it colorful and diverting in a purely theatrical way. Mario Batali’s anecdotes were always interesting enough to fill out the show; add the simple artistry of his perfect technique and you’ve got an excellent half an hour on your hands. The sob story is that Food Network canceled the show for being too brainy and traditional: There’s no travel, the same set every week, and too much talking about food. So I guess the rest of the world didn’t find the show as interesting as I did, but then isn’t that supposed to be the point of cable?

To me Molto Mario always seemed strongly reminiscent of The French Chef with Julia Child—the absolute materfamilias of television cooking programs. The boxed set, which some wonderful relative of mine got me for Christmas off Amazon.com last year, may be one of the better ways to spend $36. From the perfect flutey theme music to the time she makes the chicken dance on the counter in her poultry special, there’s really never a dull moment with Julia. It’s a classic.

As for shows nowadays, personally I’m a huge Kitchen Nightmares fan. The show, in its American incarnation, is a reality feature starring Gordon Ramsey as a surly, successful chef tearing a new orifice out of a different near-failing restaurateur each week. If you’ve ever seen Ramsey on British television, this may come as a bit of a shock to you—they let him act quite genteel on that side of the pond. Besides the dramatic content, I think it’s worth watching just to learn the feel of a bad restaurant. Considering how many meals most Americans eat in a restaurant in an average week—more than four—this is a highly useful sense to develop.

I don’t really have it in for the new formats, when you get down to it. I even enjoy a little Iron Chef every now and then, and I’m positively devoted to Top Chef (the America’s Next Top Model of cooking shows). The only one I just can’t stand is Rachael Ray. Honestly, someone needs to explain this phenomenon to me. The kind of cooking she teaches is to gourmet what Franzia is to Veuve Cliquot. Her recipes always contain about four unnecessary ingredients, yet neglect to include the vital cooking technique required to pull off the dish. For instance, she always fails to brown meat before roasting or braising it. Her daytime show I get to at least some extent: It’s got the chirpy, Oprah-quality people like (though this woman is most certainly no Oprah). But who on earth thought up $40 a Day with Rachael Ray? There is nothing sadder than watching someone stuff her face, alone, with nondescript food in empty restaurants. American television, your sensibilities elude me once more.