Believe it or not, children, there was a time when the Food Network actually concentrated on teaching people to cook. The idea of ten hours a day of inane food "battles" was unheard of, Iron Chef still came to us from campy Japan, the appetite suppressant known as Sandra Lee hadn't yet created her first precious televised "tablescape", and reality shows had yet to invade in a big way.
Yes, it truly was a Golden Age. America was waking from its culinary slumber, sloughing off the shame of James Lileks-type "haute" creations, canned vegetables and frozen dinners. Chefs were starting to assert their Americanism instead of being (badly) French-speaking nuchschleppers, and the American television-watching public, newly hooked on the choices afforded by cable programming, wanted to know how to cook.
Sadly, those halcyon days have passed, and the burned-out frame of the old TVFN (as it was initially called) can barely be made out through the horrors visited upon it by Scripps. Were there ever to be a renaissance of the old format, these are the first five shows I'd like to see back.
The Chef Jeff Project
Yes, technically it was a reality show, in which ex-con Jeff Henderson got six "troubled teens" and put them through Hell in order to show them the ropes. They were competitors for a scholarship to culinary school but, unlike every other reality show, there were no cuts. The kids worked their asses off, and it showed. Imagine that, an inspiring reality series.
Two Fat Ladies
Hosted by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright, two British ladies with enormous bollocks who brooked no bollocks, this was the first Food TV show I fell in love with. They were profligate with fat in a way that Paula Deen can only dream of imitating, but they made immensely tasty-looking food--and in the process started to change Americans' perception of "holy" (i.e., having had the Hell--and all the flavor--boiled out of it) British food to something more positive.
Mario Batali is still around, but Molto Mario was the first real exposure I had to someone who was a food snob and had the chops to back it up. There are plenty of snobby posers out there in the food world, but Mario was different; when you ignored his instructions, it really did come out differently. His show earns a spot on this list simply for teaching legions of Norwegian Midwesterners that you have to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.
I simultaneously disdained his counterful of loyal sycophants and longed to be one of them. Eating at Esca or Bocca or Stronzo or whatever two-syllable Italian names he's been giving his latest restaurant ventures just isn't the same.
Oh, French Chef, I miss you. You made the leap from PBS to Food TV in its early days, back before food shows had huge staffs ready to swap out perfect food. You made mistakes in cooking, just like we all do, and either fixed them or laughed them off. You still haunt my life in food; whenever I get too fussy about the provenance of my food, I hear your scornful, "Oh, who cares?" in my head. I wish you were back to keep me honest.
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How to Boil Water
Okay, so technically it's still on the air, but it's on at 4 a.m. Even in the age of the DVR, this means it's only going to be watched by people who are desperately seeking sustenance solace. This was Emeril Lagasse's best show, before he developed the bizarre "BAM!" cult of personality he had going. It's also Tyler Florence's best show (though Food 911 gets honorable mention) and the instruction is done without pretense. My only complaint is that it would better have been done without Jack Hourigan, the obligatory comic foil.