Television's 5 Best Foodie Shows
5. Barefoot Contessa: Ina Garten's show purports to chronicle her weird, wonderful daily life in East Hampton, complete with gay best friends, awkward dinner parties and gigantic floral arrangements. Ina is easily pilloried; her horrible script writers have her tell stories that belie her privilege in embarrassing ways, and like her mentor Martha Stewart, she is a terrible actress, so at least on the show, most of her interactions seem incredibly uncomfortable; rigid, rude and overly energetic. But Ina is real; she is a former White House nuclear policy analyst and the wife of Jeffrey Garten, Professor and former Dean of the Yale School of Management, with whom she has a sweet and funny love affair. Jeffrey returns from New Haven every weekend to an impeccable welcome-home spread, which for some reason, he has agreed to have filmed on a regular basis. In the normal course of things, Ina would be living a cosseted life, enjoying food or dogs and redecorating constantly -- and none of it would be available to the public -- yet Ina gamely offers it all, for the love of food. I cannot begin to imagine the discussion that led to Ina dragging Jeffrey into the annals of reality television, but in her lack of artifice and apparent complete obliviousness to her privilege, I actually find Ina endearing. And her recipes make great food. Really fantastic, which you'd expect from someone who uses the finest ingredients and the best tools and knows a Lot About Europe.
4. Nigella Bites/Feasts/Celebrates various Holidays: These shows are great first because the food is luscious and yummy and seems somehow attainable, and second because the same can be said about Nigella. Nigella's posh British accent, sultry delivery and lavish/relaxed style of cooking (she's always dumping in extra oil, an additional dollop of cream, one more handful of chocolate chips, etc.) are a welcome antidote to the rigor and seriousness and/or manic silliness of many American TV chefs ("Bam!") Though I can imagine some hilarious sketch comedy based on Nigella, she appears to take genuine pleasure in food (which should not be so revelatory, but this being American TV, it is).
3. Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: Like many chef-lebrities, Tony Bourdain is a divisive guy who often revels in and riffs off of his misanthropic ways. But unlike many of his macho chef colleagues, love him or hate him, Tony Bourdain is as close to authentic as I think they allow a TV presenter to be. This show finds Tony visiting exotic locales all over the world, finding cool people and learning about, talking about and eating food. Like any famous, egotistical person on a trip, he has the capacity to be ungracious, bored, vindictive, crabby; he wines and gets tired and pissed off, and sometimes he gets drunk. But he is also witty as hell, erudite, thoughtful and kind, and finds ways to highlight local culture that are unexpected and truly enlightening. Tony has a schtick, but his schtick is being prickly and challenging, and at his best, extremely fun to watch.
2. Top Chef: Two years ago, Top Chef would have topped this list, but this past season, Top Chef: Texas soured me a bit on the series. The contestants were great, but the challenges felt redundant and the Texas theme wore thin almost as soon as it began. I am hoping they resist the urge to co-produce the show with another chamber of commerce, and that next season is a more solid return to form. When Top Chef was first introduced, I was skeptical; how was a viewer ever going to identify with the quality of the product without being able to taste it? But the show demonstrates that talent is discernible across platforms, and its introduction of famous foodies, food ideas and food vocabulary into the mainstream has been a part of some welcome and exciting changes in American cooking and eating. Also, contemporary Chef culture is awesome. I love the fact that they all look like car mechanics or your ex-goth cousin, except they make bacon peanut-brittle and sous-vide everything. And as bad as the never ending steak challenges were, this season brought us both Paul and Ed, possibly my favorite reality show participants ever.
1. Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares: Not to be confused with the dreadful U.S. remake, Kitchen Nightmares, this original British series sends Gordon Ramsey cruising around England in his Audi teaching hapless restauranteurs to cook and/or run a business. Yes, the break-you-down to build-you-up formula is in full effect, and yes, Gordon plays up his jerky persona (he constantly swears,and usually comes close to blows with the head chef). But these restaurants are making huge, business-killing mistakes, and Gordon gets to tell hard truths that are usually so blaringly obvious (your alcoholic son is a horrible front-of-house; people will get food poisoning from this desiccated meat; your restaurant's interior looks like the Best Little Whorehouse in Bollywood), the owner comes to appreciate his candor and take on board the critique. Gordon makes clear that he has genuine affection and admiration for these people, and their trainees and sous-chefs, several of whom he has subsequently hired for his restaurants. It is fascinating and shocking how poorly managed these businesses are; the management challenges are often far more severe than the culinary. It also helps that Gordon and his team sail in with concrete suggestions for decor, management, and menu changes based on common sense, experience, and local demographics, and though the new culinary direction is almost always "fresh, local ingredients, prepared simply," quite a few of the restaurants have survived and thrived after Gordon's intervention. The U.S. version of this show is unwatchable -- it removes all traces of humanity by introducing the most bombastic production techniques possible and apparently telling Gordon to scream in the face of every person with whom he interacts.