Comedies and scripted dramas are highly subjective, and what tickles one viewer’s funny bone or brings another to tears may leave another cold. Cooking shows, on the other hand, must meet a different standard. A great cooking show not only features an engaging host, it also has to teach viewers new twists on something that many of them do daily. Everyone eats, so cooking shows have an innate appeal to just about anyone who prefers restaurant dining or a home-cooked meal to cans and boxes.
Since Julia Child’s original cooking show taught millions of home cooks that French food didn’t have to be intimidating or complex, television audiences have enjoyed watching chefs at work. Home chefs have become more sophisticated diners, and professional chefs have become celebrities. The best cooking shows on TV focus more on the food than on personalities, though. Catch these outstanding shows and learn more about ingredients, techniques and professional kitchen tricks.
The Mind of a Chef (PBS): The history of great cooking shows on PBS is a long one. The venerable Julia Child, whom many professional chefs credit with their lifelong passion for cooking, got her start on public television. This latest series moves far beyond the kitchen to take a novel look at how a professional chef experiences food and creates new dishes. Narrated by Anthony Bourdain and featuring David Chang in its inaugural season, The Mind of a Chef is compelling television for professionals and amateurs alike.
Top Chef (Bravo): As Bravo has moved from performing arts to reality television, it’s kept one show that manages to bring a little theater to reality and make the theatrical real, at least in the kitchen. Top Chef has been a consistently high performer for the basic cable network because it’s more about the cooking than about the personalities of the contestants. An expert judging panel includes noted multiple James Beard Award winners Tom Colicchio and Hugh Acheson, two chefs known as much for their high standards as for their food. For viewers, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a chef and a chance to see that even the best cooks sometimes produce flops.
Good Eats (Cooking Channel): Although it’s no longer in production, the 14 seasons of Good Eats still appear in regular rotation on Food Network’s sister station. Hosted by Alton Brown, the show was a fusion of classic science shows, cooking shows and comedy that educated viewers about the processes that took place when meat browned or egg whites became meringue. With its emphasis on culinary science and eye-catching camera work, it’s a fun show to watch even for those who rarely pick up a spatula.
Everyday Italian (Food Network): Food Network has been moving its programming more toward fast, efficient meals and away from cooking as an art form, but Everyday Italian is a delicious exception. Host Giada De Laurentiis makes the tastes of her native Italy approachable, fresh and fun in this half-hour show. Italian food is one of America’s favorite cuisines, and watching De Laurentiis whip up foods that are often as healthful as they are delicious inspires would-be cooks to try her recipes themselves. Her clear explanations and obvious enthusiasm for food make it a great show for novice chefs as well as intermediate and accomplished ones.
Barefoot Contessa (Food Network): Another winner from Food Network is Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa, a warm and approachable program that feels as though Garten has invited viewers in for a chat as she prepares a meal for guests. Unlike many notable network stars, Garten is a self-taught cook, so she has an intuitive feel for what viewers need to know about a recipe. Her delivery is low-key and personable, but her food is spectacular without ever feeling pretentious.
America’s Test Kitchen (PBS): The televised companion to Cook’s Illustrated magazine, America’s Test Kitchen analyzes in detail what makes a recipe work. From simple biscuits and roasted chicken to complex souffles, the hosts on this straightforward show are meticulous about understanding the mechanics of recipes and imparting that knowledge to viewers. Professional chefs tune into this show for refresher courses and short cuts, yet the recipes are methodically planned enough for even a novice to create.