I’m an avid cooking show viewer (and amateur cook and baker). I will watch just about any cooking show I can get my hands on, and often I would rather watch those (and actually learn something) than most other regular TV programming.
Cooking shows are the one exception to my no-reality-TV rule. If professional wrestling is my guilty pleasure, I’m unapologetic about the fun experience of watching cooking and baking competitions (although I do prefer the drama-less ones by a mile).
So here goes, starting with my all time favorite:
Good Eats is not your run-of-the-mill cooking show. Instead of just throwing recipes in your direction, it teaches you the history and science of food and gives you a basic collection of recipes to get you started. Each episode focuses on a food item, a cooking technique or a cuisine, and explores it as much as possible. The 30′ episodes are packed with information and they are anything but boring: Alton and his team put on a great show, whether it’s with the help of funny sketches, graphics, puppets or hilarious props, and teaches you everything you need to know. They show you the why before the how, in a way that makes the learning process fun!
To top it off, the recipes are all tried and tested and there is not one among them that does not guarantee perfect results.
Sadly, Good Eats finished its 14 season run last year, but there are frequent reruns on the Food Network, several books featuring recipes from the show, and of course just about every episode is available online.
For more Alton Brown, in a decidedly different type of show, check out Cutthroat Kitchen: a competition between chefs willing to engage in a bidding war and submit to various kinds of sabotage in order to produce a dish after each of the three torturous rounds. Although offering more entertainment than actual cooking knowledge, it’s an interesting showcase of ingenuity in the kitchen.
This is the show that got me hooked on cooking shows. Although often bordering on bad reality TV territory, which is no wonder considering it’s on Bravo, the conflicts and bitchiness of the chefs competing for the prize doesn’t detract from the top quality of the food presented. We don’t get to see the recipes these chefs come up with (mostly on the fly during the challenges), but a lot of them are available on the network’s website. What we do get is food porn at its best, the quality getting better and better with each passing season, many top notch guest chefs as judges, and of course the beautiful Padma Lakshmi as host.
A lot of the contestants and winners went on to make a name for themselves in the culinary world; I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Tiffani Faison’s delicious southern food at her Boston restuarant. She had a reputation for bad behavior after her season 1 run but definitely redeemed herself during the All-Stars season, and I can attest to her talent in the kitchen.
Although I’m more partial to earlier seasons of the show, it still makes for entertaining TV, and continuously offers inspiration to budding chefs and home cooks alike, delivering unique dishes and flavor combinations, as well as a look at how top chefs and food critics think about food.
The show’s two spin-off series, Top Chef Masters and Just Desserts, featuring accomplished celebrity chefs and pastry chefs respectively, followed the same format, but were nowhere near as successful as the original.
For the current season of Top Chef episode recaps, click here
Of all the incarnations of MasterChef, the Australian version will always be my favorite. It features almost zero drama, somehow managing to pick the most likable, nicest people you will ever see compete in a cooking show (as opposed to its American counterpart, for instance, where cattiness is apparently the deciding factor during auditions, with Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsey playing bad cop against Graham Elliot’s good cop obviously instructed to come up with as many mean remarks as they possibly can over the course of each episode, presumably to boost ratings).
The quality of the food is phenomenal. Here we have a bunch of amateur cooks preparing spectacular dishes, most of them adept at both savory and desserts, all of them a joy to watch. The judges are equally likable; I’m partial to fellow Greek George Calombaris, but both Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston are so wonderful at being equal part mentors as they are judges to these contestants, they make it seem less like a competition and more like a group of perfectly nice people working together to explore their common passion for food.
It’s no wonder the show dominates in ratings: if you have even the most remote interest in the culinary arts, it’s captivating to watch. The challenges are clever, the teamwork is impressive, the food prepared looks phenomenal, and the MasterClasses feature big name chefs and wonderful recipes and techniques.
The Great British Bake Off
If there’s a baking counterpart to MasterChef’s format in picking not only perfectly likable judges and contestants but also providing top-notch quality baked goods, it’s this one. The British show kills in ratings, and rightly so.
Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are strict but fair, and the home bakers produce masterpieces even professional chefs would envy. Though mostly focused on recipes commonly used in the UK but largely unknown to the rest of us, the challenges often feature classic french pastry and other (sometimes exotic) recipes, so no matter what part of the world you live in, there’s always something new to learn.
The Masterclasses at the end of each season are an absolute joy. Paul and Mary are probably polar opposites, but they have wonderful chemistry and seem to genuinely admire each other’s baking skills. They give step by step instructions and useful tips so that any home baker can produce excellent results. What sometimes bothers me (but presumably delights beginner bakers) is that they seem to assume their viewers are novices who need explicit directions for even the simplest tasks in the kitchen, which inevitably ends up being a bit repetitive, but that’s a very slight criticism on my part on what is an overwhelmingly positive review of a fantastic show.
[The show’s US version, The American Baking Competition, wasn’t bad, but nowhere near as brilliant as the UK original series]
For the latest season of TGBBO, click here
Gordon Ramsay’s shows
Gordon Ramsays is as prolific in turning out cooking shows as he is in opening restaurants all over the globe. A lot can be said about his TV persona, but there’s no denying his amazing talent in the kitchen. Super fast, extremely versatile and an absolute teddybear when he’s not screaming at his brigade, there’s no type of cooking show this top chef hasn’t tried his hand on.
Out of all of them, some were more reality TV than actual cooking: such is the case of Hell’s Kitchen, and to an extent Kitchen Nightmares, both obviously more focused on the personalities and the drama, with the actual food becoming incidental. Others, like the F Word and Cookalong Live, were quality entertainment with actual cooking being demonstrated.
But where he actually shines is where he’s one on one with the viewer. Gordon Ramsay’s Home Cooking and Ultimate Cookery Course were both brilliant in offering versatile recipes, cooking technique and a glimpse into his family life. Not only is he an authority in just about every cuisine and cooking menthod – either sweet or savory – but also perfectly affable and sweet, instantly connecting with the viewer. For a collection of quick, easy and tasty recipes, these two are definitely the shows to watch.
Yet another brilliant Brit on this list – actually, a bona fide culinary genius. His Fat Duck restaurant features on the world’s top ten list, and he is a self-taught master chef with unparalleled talent.
His shows are not the kind of cooking show we’ve grown to expect. Most of his recipes are too complicated and precise to attempt in a regular kitchen, and require specific equipment and exotic ingredients. But that doesn’t make the shows less fascinating to watch. It’s kitchen chemistry at its best, it’s imaginative and whimsical and downright spectacular.
Whether he’s exploring the food of previous times, re-imagined and gourmet-fied, as he does in Heston’s Feasts, or he’s making his perfect version of culinary staples like burgers, steak and fries or pizza, like In Search of Perfection, his methodical approach to food is phenomenal, and the results are out of this world.
That is also the case of his Kitchen Chemistry, Mission Impossible and Fantastical Food series, but for the kitchen novice, I’d suggest you start with the simpler How to Cook like Heston guide and work your way up.
And while we’re on the subject of brilliant british cooking shows, here’s the polar opposite of Heston: intuitive and unpretentious, Nigella has a unique way of making you fall in love with food by allowing her easy to follow recipes and calm way about the kitchen to get you on your way to becoming a Domestic Goddess.
Whether it’s Nigella Bites, Express, Feasts, Forever Summer, Nigella’s Kitchen or Christmas Kitchen, there’s one common denominator that makes her irresistable: her sultry personality and infatuation with the kitchen. Although gorgeous and in a home settings most of us would envy, she remains relatable and likable by not being ‘chefy’ in her style, but rather a regular home cook who immensely enjoys what she does.
Unique Eats & Unique Sweets
Two shows on the Food Network’s sister channel which feature exactly what the titles advertise: unique eats and unique sweets that can be found all over America. From barbecue to fried chicken and from apple pies to cupcakes, various food personalities reveal the best of what restaurants, diners, bars and bakeries have to offer.
Each episode tackles a specific type or category of food, ranging from classics to innovative dishes, both sweet and savory, offering mouth-watering descriptions of the perfect bite of each item.
Admittedly, Anthony Bourdain’s ingenious series is closer to a travel show than a cooking one. As we watch him travel the world and experience the food in each country he visits, we get a sense of not just the cuisine and the people, but an overview of the culture.
What sets this show apart from its competitors (and god knows it’s spawned a lot of copycats all over the world) is Bourdain himself: a celebrity chef and accomplished writer, his personality is bigger than life, but he manages to rein it in and achieve the perfect balance of a talented host giving room to his subject matter to shine.
He doesn’t visit the ‘tourist traps’ or stay mainly in city centers. He will go to remote places, try bizarre food, and describe it the way only a culinary expert can.
[His books, incidentally, as just as engaging – if not more – than his TV shows.]