Stephen noticed an article about Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, and sent it to Kasi, who forwarded it on to me. The article was in The New York Times on Sunday and went on for four (online) pages about her recent background and what she’s up to these days.

When I watch Food Network or WLIW’s cooking shows, as I so often do, I seriously consider why I’m listening to these celebrity chefs speak. What’s their background? What do they do when they’re not hosting a show? Are they creative? And are they talented chefs? If I’m going to spend time each week with a chef (watching their show), I sure hope they’ve got something to offer. That’s why Food Network’s recent run of Chefography Week is such a great idea and so is Garten’s article (written by Micheline Maynard).

So in my glorious arrogance, I will give a run down of the various celebrity chefs I watch out for (in a good or bad way) and why. I would love to hear your comments back on what you think of these chefs.

  • Lidia Bastianich (WLIW) – Vassup! – The mother of remarkable restaurateur Joe, Lidia is an Italian chef (who was born in Croatia) who can cook her butt off! Working with an incredible vocabulary and a background running at least five restaurants (I’ve been to two), she whips up delicious recipes and makes it look so simple. You’ve got to watch her.
  • Mario Batali (Food) – Vassup! – Getting his start in Jersey of all places (not that there’s no good food in NJ), he now works closely with restaurateur partner Joe Bastianich (son of the aforementioned Lidia) on at least eight restaurants (I’ve been to three). Perhaps learning from Lidia, he has a remarkable vocabulary, broad offering of Italian fare, and intricate knowledge of Italian geography especially as it relates to food. He’s pompous, condescending, and extremely pedantic. If you can get past his annoying personality, you’ll learn a lot watching him.
  • Mark Bittman (WLIW) – Ich Don’t Think So -That anyone ever let this Can’t Cook Anything chef near a kitchen is astonishing. I assume he has friends in high places, otherwise how could anyone let him call himself a cook? The only reason to watch his current show is to enjoy watching the chefs with whom he cooks make fun of him (which they almost always do). Stay away from this shlub and ignore his advice.
  • Alton Brown (Food) – Vassup! – While Alton’s show is extraordinarily kitschy, not my exact taste, most episodes are so over-loaded with cooking facts, your brain will feel full, and your stomach will feel hungry! He is not a great chef, but he makes up for it with information and technical advice. Sometimes great teachers are not great doers. Use his information and try to become the next technical; Wylie Dufresne wants to be beat.
  • Michael Chiarello (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – This metro Californian is probably the only celebrity chef I don’t watch purely on the basis of taste, so I will understand if you disagree with my rating here. Honestly, Chiarello really makes interesting, modern California cuisine and knows the history of the cuisine. His recipes are simple and generally good for entertaining. But I don’t care much for California cuisine, and especially the Northern dishes he trends towards. Also, his personality rakes on me like nails on a chalkboard. I’m not sure what it is, I just want to yank his turtlenecks over his head and change the channel. You’ll probably be better off changing the channel too. Or not, whatever.
  • Julia Child (WLIW) – Ich Don’t Think So – Before you flog me for nixxing the matriarch of television cooking, hear me out. This review is about who you should be watching today. While she taught many of our moms how to cook, her style of teaching is slow, boring, and tuned for a different generation. Honestly, she is probably better qualified as a maybe. Her Master Chefs series, where she partnered with other chefs on each episode is good, and those chefs bring a lot to the table. But, unfortunately, they are not the host and that’s what this is all about. Keep tuning that TV.
  • Paula Deen (Food) – Vassup! – This Southern bird can cook, and not just fried chicken. She has a great story behind her and a lot of local popularity — always a sign that someone can actually cook. She brings ten tons of personality to each episode, I assume weight gained by eating her cooking. She’s outgoing, fun, and typical Southern. If you want to learn that cuisine watch her cook. The only downside is watching her favorite her married son Jamie, over her unmarried, metro other son, Bobby. Poor Bobby.
  • Todd English (WLIW) – Vassup! – His restaurants (I’ve been to two out of the at least 12, not counting chains) could give you a heart attack: who else puts butter on lamb?! But every bite is delicious. He is the chef who answers the pure talent question. In each episode of his show he finds amazing local restaurants and creates fusion dishes out of their ideas. I particularly enjoyed watching him make a tomato soup dumpling.
  • Mary Ann Esposito (WLIW) – Vassup! -While sporting what seems to be a terrible wig, she acts just like an Italian grandmother. She stands in the kitchen wearing terrible clothing, cooking food that you would kill to eat. Like Lidia and Mario, she has a remarkable vocabulary (must be something in the San Marzano tomatoes) and a broad range of dishes. Unlike Lidia and Mario, who never seem to really hit the healthy mark, I have seen Mary Ann target healthy, Italian food quite a few times and succeed. But if you’re tuning in just for that, you better hold your noodle, because it’s rare. You’re more likely to see her incredible home garden of herbs.
  • Bobby Flay (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – After watching his chefography episode, now it all makes sense. This guy wouldn’t be allowed near a restaurant if it weren’t for his father. I h
    ave nothing against nepotism, seriously, but this guy has zero talent. If I trained a freckled robot to integrate poblanos into every recipe it would be the next chef at Mesa grill. I’ve eaten at two of Flay’s 3-4 restaurants and am not impressed, at all. His personality is atrocious: he’s arrogant, obnoxious, conceited, and completely inconsiderate. I have watched almost all of his 4,000 different attempts at television programs, and never seem to learn anything. Sad, don’t waste your time.
  • Tyler Florence – (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – I used to be a big Tyler fan. He was really fun to watch in the early episodes of “Tyler’s Ultimate” and “Food 911”. But around the time he also assumed the host role on “How to Boil Water” it all went down hill. Perhaps it was all too much to handle, which is why he also seemed to gain a bit of weight, but all the shows went down hill– except for boil water, that show always sucked. Lately he just seems to be phoning in ultimate and 911 stories are contrived at best. Anything ultimate is no longer near Tyler.
  • Ina Garten (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – Another example of huge friends (unless you consider Martha Stewart and Eli Zabar as minor players in the food world) who help get someone started. She’s a decent enough chef, and probably ate quite a bit of her own dessert, but doesn’t offer enough information about cooking. I don’t care about how much her and her husband love each other or about their stupid, fake, little plots. If you’re excited about the Contessa, hire her as a caterer.
  • Robert Irvine (Food) – Vassup! – This muscle-bound, chef consultant has a new show which is fun and odd. You probably won’t learn much about cooking, but you will learn about managing a meal and prep. The story (real or not, hard to tell) is that he gets a difficult meal project and has to make it happen with too little resource (whether it’s time, food, help, facilities, etc.). If it’s not real, this guy is an incredible actor. Tune in for an episode or two, I particularly enjoyed the one where he failed (CIA World Cuisine)– it was the most realistic.
  • Emeril Lagasse (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – Taking lessons on cooking from Emeril is a little like learning at McDonald’s. He used to be educational, when he was new on TV and not that long out of Commander’s Palace and had been working hard on his restaurants (what does he have, about 10 now?), he was great. The man really knows food. But lately (last four years?) he has become 100% entertainment and marketing. He’s so eager for you to buy his knives and spices, and to visit Disney World to see his restaurants, that he forgets to cook. Rather he just pours salt and garlic in a pan and offers it up. Where’s Paul Prudhomme or John Folse when you need them?
  • Giada De Laurentis (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – I’m not sure why she has a television show, perhaps because her family is famous? Her personality is tacky and her cooking nothing special. Obviously she has breasts, and lately has been showing them off more and more, perhaps her ratings are going down? There are people who wouldn’t mind styling them (did you read the link above?). Then there are people who think her huge head makes her look like a bobble-head (actually I’m one of them). She shouldn’t have a cooking show, but I do enjoy her as a host on the behind the event show. She’s attractive and friendly enough to stay on tv, just not with a knife in hand.
  • Nigella Lawson (WLIW/Food) – Vassup! -Speaking of breasts, Nigella is a woman who has curves galore and is not afraid to use them. Plus she really cooks some fun, home cooking. She’s like a younger, British Paula Deen, which really makes her nothing like Paula Deen. Except that she’s got a great personality and is family oriented. She is not the most amazing chef, but there are no other British chefs currently cooking on tv that I want to watch– note that I did not include Jamie Oliver, because I don’t know if he has any shows on right now. I have cooked many of her recipes, and they consistently come out “yummy” (just as she describes).
  • Sandra Lee (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – While she can’t cook worth a damn, I will give her half a thumbs up because a huge part of serving food is presenting food. She really provides a great selection of fairly easy tips on decorating and serving that I haven’t seen elsewhere. But beyond that, watching her makes me dizzy and nauseated. That she starts every sentence with “All you have to do is…” and then continues on by saying “just…” is insanity. Does she not realize that by starting each of a four step process with “All you have to do…” means that it’s not all..you..have..to..do!? Christ. Will someone write a script?
  • Daisy Martinez (WLIW) – Vassup! – This chica caliente creates fiery Cubano and Boriquan dishes each week. I’ve cooked many of them and they are amazing. She’s sparky and excited and loves food. You will want to take a bite out of your television. It’s been a long time since I learned of a new basic ingredient from a celebrity chef, but prior to Daisy, I had never heard of recaito, and now use it regularly. Go Daisy, go!
  • Jacques Pepin (WLIW) – Vassup! – This is my hands down favorite chef of all time. While the shows with his daughter Claudine (who is mildly retarded when it comes to cooking) are annoying, the rest of his shows are an informative insight into French technique. His knife skills are legendary (I’d love to see him face off against Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai) and his cookbooks are amazing. While his shows aren’t on consistently (seemingly), when they’re on they’re worth tuning in to.
  • Rachael Ray (Food) – Ich Don’t Think So – I just threw up a little in my mouth. I have so much disgust for Ray, I don’t know where to start. She can’t cook, she has the worst personality ever, and her recipes are tired. Everyday growing up my mom cooked masterful meals in 30 minutes for a family of five, so watching her make a quesadilla in 30 minutes is not special. And spending $40 a day on buying a quesadilla and a margarita is not impressive, most New Yorkers don’t spend $40 per day on food and this place is expensive! Whoever hired her at Food Network should commit seppuku on a special episode of her show. At least she proves that marketing works.
  • Jacques Torres (WLIW/Food) – Vassup! – There must be something about being named Jacques (there is: it’s French). While Pepin is the best chef, Torres is the best desser
    t chef. I miss the days of “Dessert Circus” when Torres would embarrass famous chefs by icing a cake in four seconds flat. While he doesn’t have a regular show right now, he does have regular specials on Food Network and will sometimes judge a competition.
  • Ming Tsai (WLIW) – Vassup! – Famous for pairing classical California wines (and other areas) with Asian cooking, Tsai knows fusion. His recipes are generally interesting, but not exciting; however he provides at least one technique on each show worth learning. Whether it’s a knife skill or a base sauce, he covers the gamut. And then he spends the rest of the show applying that technique. It’s a wonderful format and worth seeing.
  • Martin Yan (WLIW) – Vassup! – Yes, you bet your ass Yan Can Cook! There are not enough chefs on television showing the techniques of Chinese cooking. As one of the oldest techniques on Earth, there’s a lot to learn. The way I see it there are two classical cooking techniques: French and Chinese. Learn both. Yan is one of the few people on TV who can teach the latter. Plus his inane ramblings are humorous, if you can follow them. After all, his cooking is a bit more like watching a machine gun fire than anything else.

I know I didn’t cover every show and chef, some specific shows I left out are America’s Test Kitchen, Barbecue University, Everyday Food, and Cucina Sicilia. But I really tried to focus on current cooking shows that have a single chef as host. If I left someone out, please let me know. And again, I’d love to hear others weigh in on these chefs. One page where lots of people weigh on chefs, though mostly Food Network, is in the Chowhound forums.

posted by Lon at 08:28 AM Filed under Miscellaneous. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.