There was a time when cooking shows actually pretended to teach us how to cook. These days, most hosts of cooking shows just want to entertain us.
"Isn't this fun?" they ask over and over. "Are you having a good time?"
Almost always implied is the eternal question: "Do you like me?" Or, more specifically, "Don't hate me because I dropped the fish."
When you consider that a good portion of the cooking show audience has no intention of cooking the dishes presented on TV--and that many cooking-show addicts hardly ever cook at all--it makes sense that cooking shows have gotten goofier over the years, often intentionally. They've also become more numerous. Nov. 23 marked the official launch of a 24-hour cable channel devoted entirely to food. Both The Learning Channel and Discovery devote several hours a week to cooking programs, and the traditional home of the cooking show, public television, is still pumping out the programs.
What's worth watching? That's like asking, "What's your favorite food?" It depends on whom you ask. And so, what follows is an opinionated guide to current cooking shows.
WORTH A DETOUR
"Cooking With Master Chefs, Hosted by Julia Child"
Saturdays at noon. KCET
Most of us grew up watching her putter around the stove, but in this series Julia Child stays in her chair. Like a female Alistair Cooke hosting "Masterpiece Kitchen," Child introduces each week's chef--it's almost as if the chefs were given a cooking show for a day--then returns between segments to explain any unsolved mysteries, such as how to make a proper chocolate-curl garnish. The show might also work as a talent scouting report--Los Angeles' Michel Richard of Citrus, for instance, did so well he might just get an offer for his own series . . . or even a slot on "Letterman."
Weekdays at 11:30 a.m. TLC
Pierre Franey, one of the fathers of haute cuisine in America, may be the Huggy Bear of cook-show hosts: He plays the fool, even acting surprised when younger chefs demonstrate techniques he probably learned and forgot by the time he was 13. "Oooh, what are you cooking there?" he asks over and over on his visits to restaurant kitchens. But don't be deceived: This is one of the few shows you can actually cook from.
"Floyd on Fish"
Saturdays at 11 a.m. KCET
At his best, he's the punk-rock provocateur of the cooking-show world. At his worst, he's a bore. BBC import Keith Floyd tries to set his fellow Britishers right about food with sharp-witted insults. He calls his fans gastronauts, then berates them for their bourgeois friends who need impressing. He hoists a pint with each chef he visits. His sidekick is the unseen cameraman, whose shots turn petulant when Floyd scolds him for, say, not showing the food enough. "I am a cook; this is a cooking show," he cries. The camera responds with a ridiculous static shot of a pot on a stove. A perfect TV moment.
"The Frugal Gourmet"
Fridays at 5:30 p.m., Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. KCET; weekdays at 8:30 a.m. and noon, Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., Sundays at noon and 12:30 p.m. TLC
Foodies watch Jeff Smith with fascinated horror. He's the geeky American we're all a little afraid of becoming when we travel abroad. He often refers to citizens of other countries as "gentle people." Like "Cheer's" Cliff Claven, he constantly shows off his book learning and constantly gets his facts a teeny bit (OK, maybe a lot) wrong. He's always excited to share his experiences; he narrates footage of himself and Boy Wonder assistant, Craig--say, touring a prosciutto factory--as if he were showing home movies. And his recipes can be frightful. But no one can deny that the Frug loves food, and years of abuse in the press and apparently from a lot of his viewers ("Oh, your letters!" he cries) have not daunted his spirit.
Weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sundays at 11:30 a.m. Discovery
Yes, he's been called the Galloping Buffoon, and he still tells bad jokes, though without the constant wine-sipping these days. The most surprising thing is that Kerr succeeds in showing low-fat recipes that actually seem edible. And he doesn't fall into the trap of so many other health advocates who disparage fat as evil and worthless. Kerr knows perfectly well that fat makes food taste good, and he isn't afraid to say so.
"Julia Child and More Company"
Mondays-Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. KCET
The classic show returns, with Julia back in the kitchen, helping to shape American eating habits.
Weekdays at noon. TLC
If Madeleine Kamman came to your house for dinner, she'd sneer at your souffle and insult your mother's apple pie. But as a cooking-show host, her famous fastidiousness gives viewers solid lessons in French cuisine. Just think of her as the eccentric French aunt you never had.
Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. KCET
Suave Jacques Pepin seems to have a perfect life. He gets his fish straight from fishermen, he buys his produce from farmers and he gathers his own mushrooms in the forest. Best of all, he knows what to do with these provisions; Pepin's recipes are consistently the best on television. You never worry that he'll make a mistake. And, even better, he never condescends to the viewer. A Frenchman without attitude!
ONLY IF YOU'RE REALLY HUNGRY
"Amish Cooking From Quilt Country"
Weekdays at 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. TLC
Marcia Adams is a specialist in food from the American Midwest (she also hosts "Heartland Cooking") and has a refreshing no-nonsense style. Plus, she always shows off quilts at the end of the show. But let's face it--Amish cooking, at least as Adams presents it, is never going to replace French or Chinese.
"The Art of Mexican Cooking With Diana Kennedy"
Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. TLC
Diana Kennedy is one of the world's greatest authorities on Mexican cuisine. She has a feisty, wonderful personality. And she's a terrific cooking-class teacher. So why don't any of these qualities come across on her dullish cooking show?
Weekdays at 9:30 a.m. and noon. TNN
Merle Ellis cooks from a different cookbook each day, sometimes accompanied by the book's author. He might have a good TV personality--he has a great voice--if he'd look up at the camera more often.
"Cooking With the Urban Peasant"
Weekdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Saturdays at 11 a.m. TLC
Burr-voiced James Barber tries to reinterpret standard-issue bachelor cooking as an exotic, rustic cuisine. Sort of charming to watch, but warning: Do not try these recipes at home.
"Death by Chocolate"
Saturdays at 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Mondays at 5 and 8 p.m. TLC.
Marcel Desaulniers' book on chocolate was terrific. But somehow, seeing a show only about chocolate, in which the word "decadent" is used way too often, you start to get a sugar headache.
Weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Sundays at 11 a.m. Discovery
The series goes by different names--there's "Great Chefs of the West," " . . . of the East," " . . . of New Orleans. The quality goes up and down, depending on both the personality and cooking skills of each show's chosen chef.
"Laurie Cooks Light and Easy"
Weekdays at 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 a.m., 6:30 p.m. 10:30 p.m. TLC
Celebrities and cookbook authors come into the kitchen of Laurie Burrows Grad. Some viewers tune in just to see what she's going to wear around her neck that day--sometimes a man's tie, sometimes a colorful scarf. The problem is that worried expression she constantly wears--as if she doesn't trust Andrea from "Beverly Hills, 90210" to stir the soup without some help.
"The Low Cholesterol Gourmet"
Weekdays at noon and 4 p.m. Discovery
Few original ideas in cutting cholesterol without cutting flavor. Want a low-cholesterol milkshake? Use nonfat milk and nonfat ice cream! Oh.
"New Southern Cooking With Nathalie Dupree"
Weekdays at 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. TLC
"Nathalie Dupree's Matters of Taste"
Saturdays at 7 a.m. TLC
Nathalie Dupree always seems a little on the edge. On almost every show she seems to flub some technique and then shrug it off with, "Oh, it really doesn't matter." It's either comforting--or frightening--to know that professionals make mistakes too.
"On the Menu"
Saturdays at noon, Sundays at 7 a.m. CNN
At its best when it sticks to reporting news about food safety and trends. Turns cold during cooking segments, which go by too quickly to be either instructive or entertaining.
"World Class Cuisine"
Weekdays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Discovery
Hotel-style food from around the world--the fancy stuff. Or, what to do with those leftover truffles and caviar. Who knew luxury could be so banal?
"Yan Can Cook"
Weekdays 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Saturdays at 7 a.m. TLC
Asian food in large American cities has become so sophisticated in the last few years that Martin Yan's wide-eyed beginner's lessons seem dated. Yan is obviously a good chef; it's frustrating that he seems to hide his knowledge. Fortunately, he's toned down the Chinatown comedy voice a bit in recent seasons.