Posted by: bkivey | 2 July 2010

Allez Cuisine!

I enjoy good food and I like to cook. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in kitchens, including working my way through school behind a stove. It’s fair to say that some of the best and worst times of my working career have occurred in a restaurant; certainly some of the best parties took place after hours. With that here is a short list of food-themed TV shows that I have enjoyed.

The French Chef

I watched this show as a child because I don’t think my mother missed an episode. I remember watching Julia Child manhandling ingredients around her kitchen while describing the cooking in her distinctive voice. It often seemed like she wasn’t so much cooking with the ingredients as beating them into submission. Pity the poor fowl that ended up in her kitchen: it would be stuffed, trussed, and popped into the oven straight away. She did make even the most formidable sounding dishes accessible and left you thinking that maybe you could cook French cuisine, too.

The Galloping Gourmet

Another cooking show from my childhood. I don’t know how I found Graham Kerr but I was immediately struck by the difference in cooking styles between him and Ms. Child. Where Ms. Child was no-nonsense in a working kitchen, Mr. Graham’s show seemed more relaxed and better dressed, with more wine and humor. Yes, Virginia, there was once a time when you could drink alcohol on live TV while working and no one would come down with the vapors.

Chef!

An excellent comedy-drama starring Lenny Henry and produced for the BBC from 1993 to  1996. The title character is Gareth Blackstock, a tyrannical and demanding chef who is obsessively focused on “producing the finest food known to man.” Every person around him is his personal whipping boy and straight man but the main focus of his attention is Everton Stonehead, who starts as a know-nothing commie but eventually learns how to cook. Gareth never actually swears but his inventive use of language when dressing people down is quite astonishing as he often delivers mini-solilqueys on a persons shortcomings. No one is safe: not his brigade, not his wait staff (“morons”), not his sommeliar, not the health inspector, nor even the customers. The only person who can stand up to him is his wife Janice, who often gives better than she gets.

The first two seasons were shot on film and directed like a drama, which along with high production values gave the program a much different look and feel than the standard TV show. I’ve never seen the third season, and by all accounts it is a poor reflection of the prior work, not least because the producers switched to videotape and changed the directorial emphasis. There were also a couple of specials, reputedly as wretched as the third season.

The comedy is worth watching in its own right, but if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you’ll find yourself nodding your head a lot between bouts of laughter.

Kitchen Nightmares

This is a Gordon Ramsey vehicle/reality show featuring a failing restaurant-of-the-week that Chef Ramsey attempts to save by spending a week on-site and making menu, decor, and sometimes personnel changes. Now in its third season, the first two seasons emphasized the cuisine and use of local ingredients while the third season has fallen into the trap of emphasizing personal issues, a failing that American producers just can’t seem to control. Some of the restaurants are in appalling condition, and watching the kitchens in action I often think that I could do better, because, well, I have.

It’s no secret that Gordon Ramsey is an arrogant bastard, but he does know his stuff and is very successful on a global scale. Truth is if I was offered the opportunity to work in his kitchen for a week I would do so free of charge.  He does seem to be invested in the success of the restaurants and he demonstrates some solid management skills. In one episode he offers the young head chef of a failed restaurant a position in one of his kitchens, which for a culinary professional is like winning the lottery.

This show does well when it focuses on the food and not so well when it veers off  in to ‘Lifetime Channel’ territory. It’s entertaining and sometimes painful to watch Chef Ramsey efffing and blinding his way through the restaurant, but even better to see people pull themselves out of a jam. I have noticed that in the first two seasons the show would revisit their project restaurants a few months later but that they don’t do that in the current season, leaving one to wonder if that’s because of budget constraints or all of the restaurants failed.

Iron Chef

Yes, you knew this one was coming, the Big Kahuna of cooking shows. A concept that could only come from Japan, Iron Chef started production there in 1993 and ran until 1999. For the three people on the planet who haven’t heard of it, Iron Chef is what happens when you combine The French Chef with Monday Night Football. In the original show the premise is that a stable of Iron Chefs, each specializing in a particular cuisine, face a challenger who chooses which chef they will battle and then both chefs have one hour to prepare a multi-course meal from a secret ingredient. The resulting dishes are then judged by a panel of celebrities and experts who decide “whose cuisine reigns supreme”.

The contests take place in a TV sound stage equipped with two complete commercial kitchens and each chef has a couple of assistants along with a pantry full of goodies. Along with the Chairman, who runs the show, there is an announcer and a floor reporter to keep viewers abreast of the action. I stumbled across this show in 1995 and after one episode I was hooked. During its original run the show was in Japanese with English dubbing/subtitles which gave it a somewhat campy feel, as if Chairman Kaga’s outfits didn’t do the job.

In 2005 Iron Chef America started airing using the same format as the original show. Because of the increased frequency and length of commercial breaks in the American version, there are some notable differences from the original.

  • At the beginning of the show in the original there would be a 2 minute bio of the challenger. This gave viewers a sense of who the challenger was and some context for the battle. The challenger would sometimes be given nifty nicknames, like “The Conjurer of Salt”.
  • After the cooking was done the original show spent a couple of minutes describing the dishes of both the Iron Chef and the challenger while showing beauty shots of each offering.
  • After the secret ingredient was revealed the original show would give some background on the ingredient and why it was chosen, especially if there was some cultural significance.
  • The floor reporter in the original gave detailed descriptions of what each chef was doing including ingredients and cooking methods. The descriptions in the current show are much less comprehensive.

Another major difference is that in the original there was a spectator box of 15 – 20 people that would usually contain supporters of the challenger. In some episodes Kitchen Stadium would take on the air of a soccer game with banging drums and cheering. And in the original the seafood would nearly always be live, something that doesn’t occur often in the American version.

I recall a website from the late ’90’s where a fan described her journey to a taping of the show in Tokyo. From her account what you see on TV is pretty much what happens. The chefs really do only have an hour to cook. She did mention that the choosing of the Iron Chef is done in advance of the show, so the whole picking by the challenger is pure theater, and that both competitors are given a list of five possible theme ingredients a week before air, so they can stock their pantries. Still, none of those production necessities takes away from the drama of two skilled cooks going head-to-head in a very short period of time to produce a meal from an ingredient they might get.

I’ve actually picked up some recipes watching the show, although I’m not going to try to make squid ink ice cream.

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