Food for Thought: The Joy of Cooking Shows

In another life, I’d like to be Jeffrey, the husband of Ina Garten. His only job, it appears, is to turn up for lunch, raise a glass to his Barefoot Contessa, then tuck into her perfect roast chicken followed by a slice of lemon ricotta torte. If Jeffrey has other duties, I’d rather not know about them. 

After a serene hour, during which she manifests dinner, Ina often welcomes “friends” to her table. And  Stanley Tucci or Laura Linney happen to turn up, who can blame them? In turbulent times, Ina’s unhurried presence is as soothing as her voice. 

I’ve made a few of her recipes, zested lemon peel into Ina’s impeccable Green Beans Gremolata. But with her show, like others,  the pleasure lies in watching. I’ve become a culinary voyeur. 

Illustration by James Albon

Spare me the competitions. The mad dash to create a dish from a mystery basket filled with dandelion greens, maple syrup, chicken livers, and rhubarb sounds as stressful as an outbreak of poison ivy. Instead, I’m fascinated by the evidence-based approach of Cook’s Illustrated’s Christopher Kimball, who tempers chocolate ganache—the correct way—before drizzling it over a flourless cake and topping with chopped hazelnuts, never pistachios. The test kitchen has confirmed this.  

Psychologists might call this “numbing.” I call it “aspirational research.” Cook’s Illustrated’s authority offers the promise of sidestepping all errors. If I decide, someday, to fry the chicken or roll out the pie crust, the trial-and-error part is done. 

“They’re such an escape,” says Kate Stephenson, the personal chef behind Kate Uncorked in Richmond. “Everything is already chopped or measured in its own separate bowl, it’s all right in front of you.” Stephenson loves Ina, but she’s also a fan of Girl Meets Farm host Molly Yeh: “She’s just adorable.” 

Stephenson, who trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland’s County Cork, knows the score: “The reality of cooking,” she notes, “is that it’s 80 percent prep and cleaning and 20 percent actual cooking.” Who can resist, then, the fantasy of cooking without cleanup? 

You won’t catch these hosts multitasking, either. PBS chef Lidia Bastianich is impervious to intrusions from the outside world. When Kardea Brown, host of the Food Network’s “Delicious Miss Brown,” whips up her Bayou shrimp and grits, there are no dogs to walk or telemarketers calling. Unlike me, Edward Delling-Williams, the British chef who hosts Paris Bistro Cooking, has never paused, mid-recipe, to run an afternoon carpool. The hosts’ singular focus on cooking is meditative. And that’s the appeal. 

Those who love Julia Child know that chaos often broke out behind the scenes on her cooking shows. But even those mishaps are gently folded into The Great British Bake Off, like stiff whipped egg whites into cake batter. The judges will dip their forks into the wreckage of an Eiffel Tower cake, perfect until it wobbled, and proclaim that the crumb is “quite moist” and the depth of flavor, “lovely.” They’ll turn to each other, sussing out the cardamom, and shrug. “Pity then,” it fell over. The crestfallen baker nods bravely, then smiles. Life goes on, these runner-ups remind us, even when things don’t go as planned. 

Careers have been inspired by cooking shows. “There’s no shame in admitting it,” the venerated Escoffier School of Culinary Arts notes breathlessly on its website, “lots of expert culinarians first fell in love with cooking by watching it on television!” It’s possible, even, that some viewers actually cook whatever Ina or Kardea are making. 

But like the rest of us, I’m content to watch. I might make Brown’s Low Country Spatchcocked Chicken, someday. Or, I might not. But as long as Ina and Jeffrey are sitting down to lunch, I know that all is right with the world.  

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