Friday, October 06, 2006


In praise of Great Chefs of the World

The Food Network just gets worse and worse. They quit playing the real Iron Chef and replaced it with their lame Iron Chef America. They got rid of Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour for the same reason: because they want to focus more on domestic food. Luckily, Bourdain got picked up by the Travel Channel, and No Reservations is much better than Cook’s Tour was to begin with. But Food Network has also been pushing loudmouth Paula Dean and her loudmouth sons way too much. They also devote an inordinate amount of time to cooking contests involving sculptural cakes. I never thought I’d live to say this, but Emeril Live is now one of the best shows they’ve got. (Emeril’s Essence, his traditional cooking show instead of the loud live one, is actually really good. It only comes on weekends.)

So let’s take a moment to remember Great Chefs of the World, which still airs (I think?) on the Discovery Channel. No matter what Alton Brown may say, GCotW is the ultimate foodie show. A single camera captures a chef making a dish in his own professional kitchen, not a set. He—we’re dealing mostly with hotel chefs in Europe, so it’s almost always a he—explains what he’s doing as he does it. A pleasant woman’s voice narrates, though she doesn’t actually translate word for word. This gives plenty of great moments when a chef will speak for about 60 seconds in German or Greek, and the narrator will only tell us something like “he then adds the other ingredients.” One of the other things that I like about the show is that the executive chef will prepare the dish from raw ingredients, so he has to chop, whisk, and sautee himself rather that making his staff do it. Occasionally, you’ll see him unsure about where to find a bowl or which pan to use.

The ironic charm of the show, and Food Network won’t understand this, is that the chef NEVER seems excited about what he’s doing. Imagine you’re at work and some stranger walks up and asks what you’re doing. You give a polite but short reply and move on. GCotW makes an extremely watchable show out of that format.

And that’s it. Each show features an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. Each course comes from a different chef in a different city, and there’s no apparent connection between the three. The chef makes the dish, usually with some sous chef standing around in the background trying to look busy, a single shot of the finished dish gets displayed, and they move on to the next. No “bam!” or “mmmm, yummers!” or animal fats made from sock puppets. It’s not meant to be educational or even entertaining, unless you happen to enjoy great meals being prepared.

There are several varieties of Great Chefs, but the "...of the World" version is by far my favorite. A lot of the fun is lost when the chefs speak in English and know that the audience may actually show up at their restaurant.

Amanda says...

The sculptural cake contests don't seem so bad once you see the contests where these talented bakers are "challenged" to make a cityscape out of rice krispie treats ('cause, you know, that's an important skill for a baker to have).
Hey, I LOVE watching food network challange! Watching them build cool sugar sculptures is the only I EVER watch on the Food Network...besides, they're about to launch food network classic.
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