While watching my fiftieth or so episode of Good Eats, I realized that I had never once prepared a recipe shown on the show. Same for Chef at Home, Top Chef, Iron Chef America… It was delicious entertainment. But I felt guilty. Should I be cooking along? Or is it okay to sit back and enjoy the view?
For me, the pleasure I get from watching cooking shows is watching a professional create something beautiful from something simple. The chef takes ingredients and procedures that I understand, and from those known elements the chef produces a dish I don’t quite understand. Yeah, I “understand” how to brown butter for a sauce, but I don’t get why it’s so goddamn delicious.
It’s magic as far as I know. I have proof that it’s magic, as I have watched on multiple occasion my brother, a chef, create the same delicious sorcery in plain view. I see what’s happening but don’t quite “get it.” This experience is replicated daily in the relationship between television chef and home cook.
Cooking shows are a distinct “type” of reality show. On shows like Survivor or Big Brother, we watch everyday people be put through extraordinary circumstances. On cooking shows, we watch professionals acting professionally. Or, like in the case of Gordon Ramsay’s Master Chef, we watch ordinary people becoming professionals.
Professionalism is sexy. Deep knowledge is sexy. Confidence is sexy. That’s why Alton Brown (of Good Eats, Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef... etc.) is sexy. The way he speaks about yogurt and broccoli and kale with such authority, make me want to understand the product better. He makes nerding out on food-related minutia exciting!
Alton Brown is the reason Iron Chef America has such high ratings. There would be no drama without Alton Brown’s narration.
“The competitor only has 4 minutes remaining! Better start plating!” Alton Brown would say.
“Cripes! He’s not going to make it!” I think in my head.
Nowhere in this exchange does it matter that I know not how long it takes to plate a dish of octopus. It could take 10 seconds. But Alton tells me that it’s urgent, so I listen up! Praise be Alton Brown. He is the well spoken, vastly knowledgeable, oft forgotten hero of cooking television right now.
The upwards momentum of cooking reality television has only one downside that I can see: being good at cooking has become synonymous with “being a professional.” In the business of food reality shows, the home cook is left out of the proceedings. Even on shows that are considered “how to cook” shows, such as Giada at Home or Anna’s Whatever, the focus is on the celebrity chef. Whether or not the home viewer tries the recipe is inconsequential, as whether or not a home chef makes a recipe does not affect ratings.
Watching other people cook food has become a hobby for millions of television viewers. Like so many other aspects in our lives, we watch instead of do. We are part of a generation of television watchers with a deep knowledge of food culture, without the practical experience. But cooking isn’t a specialized hobby. It’s something we all should do, multiple times a day. It isn’t necessarily hard, either. It just takes practice. The best cooking shows inspire us. The best celebrity chefs embarrass us at our lack of know-how.
Finally, I tried a recipe from Good Eats. It was for lemon meringue pie. I had made a key lime pie in the past so my confidence was high that with Alton on my side I would have a winner. I failed miserably. The crust never stuck together and the filling can only be described as “squigee.” But hell, I broke the seal.
Go out and cook a delicious omelet. Here’s a video how:
Image of Alton Brown from EricaJoy