With the onslaught of a generation of TV food shows that seem to be vying for an Emmy in the category of Most Thoroughly Robbing Cooking of Dignity, Fun, and Good Health (I declare this season’s winner to be Cutthroat Kitchen: Superstar Sabotage Tournament, by the way), it can be restorative to recall the shows that were actually great.
Ever heard of Justin Wilson? Well, how about David Rosengarten with his classic Taste? While I was researching my book on the history of Food Network, I found myself procrastinating with hours of these morsels.
So turn off the shows that are presenting disasters like Philly Cheesesteak Egg Rolls on a Stick (sorry Food Network, we still love you!) and try these 14 still fun-to-watch food TV landmarks. You can still watch most of them right now!
Home Grown with Justin Wilson
Watch three minutes and 54 seconds of this and tell me you wouldn’t love to hang out in a kitchen with this dude while he cooks. I know that four minutes is longer than forever these days. But Justin Wilson, host of Home Grown and other shows from the 1970s to the 1990s (some only airing on Southern public TV, some nationally through PBS), is the kind of Cosby-like storyteller who can bring you in and keep you rapt for an hour without you realizing a minute has passed. Famous in his day for his catchphrase “I gar-on-tee,” Wilson was a fount of wit, noting that the reason he wore both a belt and suspenders was, “There are some things you don’t want to leave to chance.” We haven’t even discussed his cooking: gumbo, hush puppies, Louisiana seafood. Unearth these treasures on YouTube, or see if you can find it on VHS, and forget your troubles for a spell. Isn’t that what cooking shows are for?
**For one episode of this show, which ran for the first seven years of the Food Network’s existence, David Rosengarten and director Josh White decided to demonstrate the aphrodisiac potency of oysters by bathing his set in purple light and having a giant amoeba-shaped light pulse as if it were experiencing orgiastic ecstasy. True, the founding president of Food Network, Reese Schonfeld, was not amused. “How did you put a purple f—ing blob on my network?!” he screamed at Rosengarten afterward. But the former theater-studies professor’s spirit and his clever cooking tricks still make for good watching. As with many of its “classic” shows, Food Network continues to resist issuing Taste on DVD or digital download, perhaps because the contracts signed with talent were so amateurish during the startup years. You can taste some Taste here—or sign up for Rosengarten’s newly relaunched newsletter, The Rosengarten Report.
When people complain that Food Network doesn’t offer anything but competition shows and Guy Fieri anymore, they are ignoring the bloc of daytime hours, when the network airs old-fashioned instructional cooking shows. Possibly the network’s greatest practitioner of this art was Mario Batali on the various incarnations of Molto Mario over the years. Right now, the seminal show is not being broadcast in the daytime rotation, nor can I find entire episodes anywhere online, but be assured that it is never off TV for long. Who can resist watching Batali bestow history lessons about the various regions of Italy, relating it all to pasta shapes and flours, while doling out plates of steaming artistry to a rotating cast of guests who might include Anthony Bourdain or a relatively garrulous Ed Levine (the future founder of Serious Eats). You can watch Batali any day of the week on The Chew, but to see a classic version of The Orange One, find a way to catch *Molto Mario—*even if only in this partial episode on You Tube, where he discusses the relationship between puttanesca and prostitution.
First season of Tyler’s Ultimate
Shot on a set designed to look like the kitchen in Tyler Florence’s real-life Lower East Side hipster bachelor pad, the show had an authenticity Florence has not matched since. When I asked him about the pizza episode, where he is taught by a master, Giavanna Raffoni, in her Naples apartment, he got goose pimples on his arms remembering the taste of those smoked tomatoes. The enthusiasm and joy he felt at being paid to travel around and learn how to cook delicious food comes through the screen to this day. Avoid the later seasons, when Food Network kept a tighter rein on Tyler following his $3 million Applebee’s endorsement deal, and nixed the travel component. Off the road, it became a ho-hum product.
Food Network is running episodes of Tyler’s Ultimate on Monday mornings. Keep an eye out for the pizza episode—the official Food Network code of this episode is TU1A08, which may help your search.
The Frugal Gourmet
Yes, Jeff Smith was a mess, possibly of the worst kind. Do read David Kamp’s amazing and essential The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation for a well-rounded account of the alleged crimes of this troubled man. But let us not forget that Smith was a hugely influential TV star, his cookbooks of the 1980s and 1990s far outselling Julia Child’s. With history lessons about ingredients that were a forerunner to Molto Mario, and recipes nearly as clear to follow as Ina Garten’s, Smith taught me and a lot of other Gen Xers how to cook whenever we tuned into PBS. I haven’t seen his show broadcast anywhere in more than a decade, but Hulu has him.
Bottom line: You might not believe it, but you are probably reading this because of Emeril Lagasse, who melded the worlds of entertainment and cooking like no one had before. Watch an episode of this 1997-2007 series and be amazed at how excited people were that a man used as much garlic as he wanted. Bam! Using music, fire, and his serious chops as a chef, Lagasse mesmerized and energized audiences both in the studio and at home, imperfectly but consistently. The promise that chefs could be the new rock stars, a concept invented by Emeril’s then-agent Shep Gordon (who also represented ghoul-rocker Alice Cooper), was driven home by Emeril Live! (which was not broadcast live but taped in front of a live audience). Cooking Channel puts episodes into the cable rotation now and then. As I’m writing this, you can find some episodes on You Tube on cooking with beer and comfort food, or with celebrity guest Pat Benatar. (It’s not quite the same, but the early episodes of Essence of Emeril—pick the ones with black-and-white tile in the background—make for vintage fun on Hulu even without a studio audience.)
The Naked Chef
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution was a landmark show for a major U.S. broadcast network when it ran from 2010 to 2011, helping lead to improvements in school lunch programs nationally. When Oliver burst on the TV scene in the 1990s, he was a new type of chef for mass media. Chef Marco Pierre White, with his beard and his meat-forward cuisine, was the chef’s chef of the era. But for many, the first appearance of the tousled young hipster chef, playing drums in a band, cooking in his little apartment for his hot girlfriend, was the shaggy blond Jamie Oliver with his “naked” cuisine, named for its simplicity by producer Patricia Llewellyn, the same brilliant woman who created and named Two Fat Ladies. Hulu plus subscribers can catch it all. Or try DVD.
Two Fat Ladies
Like all of the best TV shows ever, there is no reason on the surface that this show should have worked: Two not-young, not-svelte Englishwomen who prattle about the drafty countryside on a motorcycle and sidecar, cooking breath-destroying traditional cuisine such as deviled kidneys, and adding as much lard, Stilton, and anchovy as possible to everything. They make rude jokes—a reference to the anal-sex scene in Last Tango in Paris while buttering a baking dish is particularly memorable—speak in trills that make Julia Child sound like Barry White, and seem always ready to bite the heads off anything that appears delicious. There is an authenticity and humanness to these characters no marketing department or consultant could ever instill. Its lack of freshness is the freshest thing about it. God bless the British executives who greenlit this show in the 1990s, and God bless Joe Langhan, the Providence, Rhode Island, cable exec who started Food Network and made the deal to bring Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright to American TV, providing some of the funds that allowed the show to keep filming—yes, it was shot on film. Expensive! YouTube has a a great selection of Fat Ladies videos. Or you can buy an official collection from Amazon.
A Cook’s Tour
Many interviewers are surprised when I remind them that Anthony Bourdain’s first TV series was broadcast on Food Network. When the network executives approached him in the wake of the success of his book Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain did not believe it likely that the television home of Emeril, whom he had called “an Ewok” in print, would actually want to do a show with him. But there was still some creative ambition at Food Network and, with Bourdain about to start researching a new book to be called A Cook’s Tour, a deal was made.
It didn’t last. Episodes of the show found Bourdain sampling cobra heart, traveling to the Mekong delta, and pursuing his interest in Apocalypse Now by visiting a reputedly dangerous village in Cambodia. It was wonderful, but new Food Network executives told Bourdain he was getting better ratings when visiting barbecue joints in the American South. When they asked him to focus domestically and refused to fund a visit to Ferran Adria’s legendary laboratory of techno-emotional cuisine, El Bulli, Bourdain, to his everlasting credit, bailed. Thanks to Hulu, you can now visit the two seasons of episodes of A Cook’s Tour, where it all started. Do give Food Network some credit, though, for starting what has become an amazing run of Bourdain television.
Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
You could watch Julia Child’s original, revered, groundbreaking, omelet-slipping, chicken-trussing, world-changing original show The French Chef, as you’ve either done or been told to do countless times. Or you could spend time with the master of French cooking instruction himself, Jacques Pepin, on one of his many PBS endeavors. Instead, slay two legendary birds with one click by treating your brain’s fantasy cortex to the pair doing their thing together. Your visual and taste synapses will engage in a dance that will inexorably cause you to pull out your cooking twine to prepare leg of lamb, or to head to the grocery for cauliflower for Pepin’s gratin. This is why food TV first entranced people: They were watching interesting people make things that looked good to eat and were presented with incredible sweetness, gentle music, and nothing but an obvious desire to generously share a little miracle which can be performed at home. Hulu has it.
Yan Can Cook
What’s especially interesting about Martin Yan’s joke-filled Asian cooking half-hour is that its debut in 1978 signaled the start of an era of cooking programs focused on cuisines other than French and Italian. Yan created a symphony with his cleaver on the cutting board, and, according to Kathleen Collins’s excellent and deeply researched book Watching What We Eat:The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows, available on Amazon, this show was one of the first to truly address “the wealth of cultures in the U.S.,” leading to other landmarks like Nathalie Dupree’s New Southern Cooking and (bringing it to the present) New Scandinavian Cooking. To view Martin’s series, you need to fire up the old VCR and buy a tape.
Holiday Entertaining with Martha Stewart
The popularization of “tablescapes,” and of television that focused on aspects of a meal other than the cooking of it can be traced back to Martha Stewart’s 1986 debut on PBS. She does cook, but more importantly, she presents. Scroll forward to the 2:28 mark for this very short promo for the special, read about the filming of it, or check out a VHS tape from a local library.
James Beard’s various shows
The in-production documentary about Beard is called America’s First Foodie. It’s fascinating viewing for any professional or amateur scholar of food television to experience some of the first cooking shows ever broadcast, including many shows from the late 1940s and 1950s, like I Love to Eat, that celebrated American cuisine, which had long been looked down upon. Few episodes are known to still exist, so, for now, watch a few snippets of original James Beard in this promising trailer for the documentary.
The Surreal Gourmet
The one show I wish I had included in my book but did not find room for was Bob Blumer’s weird-before-weird-wasn’t-so-weird show, which was a favorite of Food Network’s gutsy marketing chief Heidi Diamond, but never caught on big with viewers. (Possibly because Diamond left the network and the new regime had less of an appetite for weird. See Bourdain above.) Dishwasher Salmon? A lobster pie shaped like a bed? Sample The Surreal Gourmet at this upstart video streaming site. (Previews are free.)
Editor’s Note: This show technically hasn’t aired yet, but we’re pretty sure Best New Restaurant is gonna be just great. Oh, and did we mention we’re partnering with Bravo on it?