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
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
Two Fat Ladies
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.
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.
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.
How to Boil
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.