Until I was 17, I thought the words “cooking” and “defrosting” were interchangeable. We ate “TV dinners” so much that we each actually had one of these things that looked like a tiny ironing board you unfolded and put in front of the couch at dinner time. They were made to hold a TV dinner, silverware, and a glass of milk. Or in Mom and Dad’s case, a Manhattan.
When I entered the Army at 18, everyone in basic training had to pull a day of what they called “K.P.” It stood for “Kitchen Police” even though we were neither cooks nor law enforcement officers. What we did was the grunt work in the mess hall; washing dishes, mopping floors, and peeling potatoes. It was there I discovered, to my amazement, that mashed potatoes could be made from actual, real potatoes instead of adding water to flakes from a box.
In years past, kids learned to cook at their mother’s knee… depending on how tall she was. But starting with my generation, both parents usually had jobs. When they got home, they wanted the kids fed, but weren’t especially keen on teaching them how to whip up a Crème Brûlée.
So, like a lot of my generation, I learned to cook watching television. Mainly, PBS. I had the legendary Julia Child, the entertaining Jeff Smith (the Frugal Gourmet), the hilarious Cajun Justin Wilson, Chef Paul Prudhomme, the Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr, and Chef René (the Black Hat Chef) who was easily the meanest, most ill-tempered prick ever to host a TV show.
Type “Cooking” in the Netflix search bar and you’re going to see screen after screen of shows that have something to do with cooking. Marginally. But only five of them will actually teach you anything about doing it yourself.
- Good Eats Collection. Alton Brown, the host/creator of Good Eats, is actually a chef—he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute. Good Eats is a combination of old-fashioned “This is how to cook this” TV with a primer on kitchen equipment and an educational treatise on the underlying processes of cooking. It’s also pretty funny and Brown is an amusing guy. Ever since the Food Network stopped airing cooking shows and went into the “Game Shows for Gluttons” business, Netflix and Youtube are about your only sources for an education in the kitchen. Good Eats is the best of the lot.
- The Mind of a Chef. This Emmy- and James Beard Award-winning series isn’t all cooking, but hardly any series is anymore. What the producers of this PBS show do is combine travel, history, humor, and cooking by following one chef per season. With titles like “Pig,” “Noodle,” and “Rotten,” how could you not learn something from watching this show? It’s narrated by Anthony Bourdain, everyone’s favorite smart-ass, and is entirely enjoyable even if you never try to cook anything you see.
- America’s Test Kitchen. As basic as a cooking show is going to get. The host, Cook’s Illustrated editor-in-chief Christopher Kimball, features three or four actual recipes centered around a central idea; comfort foods, pasta, Asian cuisine, etc. Where Good Eats take the science of cooking and turns it into great slapstick, America’s Test Kitchen actually has a “Science Desk” segment to dissect what’s going on behind the scenes. The show also features an equipment review where they introduce kitchen gadgets and give you a run-down on whether or not the thing is useful. This is a more high-brow approach to cooking than most of the shows you’ll find, but not so much that it detracts from the entertainment value. Try it—who knows?
- Throwdown! With Bobby Flay. I hated Bobby Flay for a long time. Something about that wise-ass smirk on his face and the fact that he reminds me of a leprechaun kept me away from any of his shows. Finally, I gave in and tried Throwdown! Well… he is a wise-ass, but not in a mean-spirited way—and he’s also a good cook. This show sounds like it would be a game show, but it’s actually a very good cooking lesson. What they do is challenge Flay to compete against another chef who specializes in one cuisine or specialty. The guest chefs aren’t told ahead of time that Flay will be showing up to challenge them, so when he does show up, the contest begins. Now, Flay is the first to admit that he’s more at home with Tex-Mex than he is baking cupcakes, but the guy is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, so it’s not like he’s never flambéed a tart. Still, watching he and his two sous-chefs attempt to “beat” the weekly guest chef they’re going up against is a real education in cooking. His record is 32 wins, 1 tie, and 68 losses. I still think he looks like a leprechaun, but now I like him.
- Back to Basics. Ina Garten, host of Back to Basics, does the best “how to cook” cooking show left on television. No “look at me,” no “I’m a celebrity,” and no Gordon Ramsay hissy fits. Just plain, everyday, good, simple cooking. What she does very well is make the ordinary extraordinary with just a few, very small and uncomplicated tips and techniques. If you’re having a friend or two drop by for lunch, you want to cook like Ina Garten tells you to cook. Ever had a roasted pear with bleu cheese? Me, neither—but when Ina showed me how easy it was and how delicious it looked, pears and bleu cheese went on the grocery list. This is the kind of cooking show I like.
These aren’t really cooking shows as in “How To Cook,” but they’re worth a watch.
1. Chef’s Table is a Netflix-produced series that picks a famous chef and follows them both in their life and in their restaurant. It’s actually not as much a “cooking instruction” series as it is a “look at this” type series. Yes, you can learn a lot about cooking watching this show, but none of these chefs are going to look at the camera and say, “One cup of flour, a tablespoon of salt, and a pinch of yeast…” They don’t want to teach you, they want you to be in awe.
2. The Great British Baking Show. A game show with contestants, but one of the very few game shows that will actually teach you something. You won’t get any recipes—but really, who needs them when you’ve got the internet. I like to bake, so I like this show. I don’t like to fish, so I don’t like fishing shows. If you don’t like to bake, you won’t like this show. I think that’s called circular logic or something. Probably not.
I suppose it’s too much to hope for, but I wish Netflix would find some of the really old cooking shows and add them to their mix. I miss watching The Frugal Gourmet set off the fire alarm in the studio and I miss watching Julia Child body-slam a whole chicken onto a cutting board. But in the meantime, you can still find plenty of material to get you into the kitchen.
Don Gillette is a horror/thriller novelist who can also knock out a Boeuf Bourguignon. His latest book, Old Leather, a collection of short fiction, is available at booksellers and on-line retailers world-wide.