Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Free Cooking Lessons II - A Beginner's Guide to TV Chefs

Each and every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. This baby's from March 2008, and man, I'm kind of shocked by how much of a difference two years makes, at least on TV.

(Rejected titles for this post: “Free Cooking Lessons Part II: Electric Cookaloo,” “Free Cooking Lessons Part II: The Cookening”)

Months ago, CHG featured two pieces about finding cooking lessons for free on the internet. One was cleverly called Free Cooking Lessons, while the other, a rundown of web-based slicing and carving techniques, was titled Chop ‘til You Drop. Today’s article is a sequel to those posts, focusing on television instead of the web.

See, while many might of us not have access to high speed internet, many of us get some form of basic cable or cable TV. This means that morning, noon, and night, we’re exposed to some of the best chefs and cooks on Earth, from flame-haired, Dionysian Italians to entrancingly mom-esque Hampton doyennes. These folks can teach us TONS, as long as we’re patient, observant, and know how to navigate through the programming. That last part is where CHG comes in.

What follows is a basic guide to 21 instructional cooking shows, including brief descriptions and links. It’s designed to give beginners an idea of where to start, and to direct more advanced cooks to series that might interest them. It focuses mostly on the Food Network, though several PBS shows and a few Martha Stewart ventures are included. Air times should be included in the links.

Before getting started, a word: while I usually try to avoid injecting my opinion into Wednesday articles, it’s not the case here. This post is 99% personal opinion (1% bad jokes), with my favorite shows marked as “suggested viewing.” That said, I urge readers to chime in with brilliant suggestions, supportive comments, terrible insults, and threats to turn me into a tablescape.

Let's get this thing started...


America’s Test Kitchen with Christopher Kimball (PBS)
Good for: anyone
Bad for: N/A

America’s Test Kitchen is PBS in a nutshell: calm, informative, and most excellent. The sister show to Cook’s Illustrated magazine, it’s chock full of equipment tests, product tastings, and painstakingly researched recipes. The cuisine is mostly traditional American, though international dishes do make frequent appearances. Suggested viewing.

Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger (Food Network)
Good for: healthy eaters, dieters
Bad for: sumo wrestlers
Oh, I like Ellie a lot. Her measured, sweet demeanor is a soothing oasis in a land of yappers. As FN’s resident healthy chef, she creates sane, lo-cal dishes with a dollop of nice flavor. I’ve prepared several of her recipes, and their success/failure rate is about 3 to 1. Suggested viewing.

Everyday Food with the Everyday Food Crew (PBS)
Good for: folks on the go, simplicity enthusiasts, fans of Thoreau’s “Walden”
Bad for: N/A

Martha Stewart is the Executive Producer here, and it shows. Simply presented and gorgeously shot, EF’s a solid reference for casual cooks and beginners, both. It covers the basics of preparation quite well, and has some fine-looking recipes to boot. The show’s one downfall? The 14,000 hosts, who switch off every segment. They're a tad tough to identify.

Everyday Italian with Giada DeLaurentiis (Food Network)
Good for: anyone, but especially Italian food lovers
Bad for: N/A

Dubbed "Little Big Head" by the denizens of Television Without Pity, the quality of Giada’s food is in direct proportion to the fabulousness of her cleavage. In other words, the lady can cook. By employing fresh ingredients and simple techniques, she creates some seriously good-looking Italian food that’s easy enough for most kitchen novices. GD takes a lot of flack for being an abnormally attractive, thin chef (well, that and the claw hand), but the haters need to back off.

Good Deal with Dave Lieberman
Good for: college kids, first-time apartment owners, anyone
Bad for: N/A

Cute! Smart! A good cook! The eminently date-able Lieberman centers his show on simple, lower (but not low) cost food – the kind most people can procure at the local supermarket. I haven’t made many of his dishes, but the Braised Hoisin Beer Short Ribs are TO DIE FOR. Worth checking out, especially for younger viewers.

Good Eats with Alton Brown (Food Network)
Good for: anyone
Bad for: N/A

Food Historian, Science Geek, Gastronomic Innovator, Guy You Wish Was Related Somehow: Alton Brown is all of these and then some. It’s really, really hard to find detractors of his show, Good Eats, because I don’t think there are any. Alton pretty much breaks down where meals originate, how they come together on a chemical level, and which ways they’re best prepared. I CAN NOT recommend it (or his cookbooks) highly enough. Suggested viewing.

Guy’s Big Bite with Guy Fieri (Food Network)
Good for: dudes
Bad for: people concerned about their health

Are you a dude? Are you a large dude? Are you a large dude who’ll eat 87 wings in a single sitting and then take enormous pride in farting on your girlfriend? Big Bite is the show for you. Guy’s a spike-haired skater who specializes in Man Food, and his series is a solid resource for Super Bowl Sunday and/or any impending tailgate parties.

Jacques Pepin’s various shows (PBS)
Good for: almost anyone
Bad for: people who don’t understand thick Bourg-en-Bresse accents

Initially, I thought Jacques’ shows consisted entirely of upscale French chef-ery. Alas, I’m dumb. While he does specialize in la cuisine de Paris, he’s also a technique guy, who carefully and methodically demonstrates the proper ways to make a plethora of dishes. Jacques, vous êtes trés bon.

Paula’s Home Cooking with Paula Deen (Food Network)
Good for: southern cooking enthusiasts, comfort food lovers
Bad for: weight watchers, people allergic to “Y’ALL!!!!!!!”

Years ago, PauDain was a relaxed, sweet middle-aged lady who serenely prepared all sorts of indulgent, down-home goodies. Today she cooks the same food, but the personality volume is constantly jacked up to 11. I still harbor happy feelings about Paula and her wonderfully extravagant “27 sticks of butter!” meals, but others may shy away from the loud.

30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray (Food Network)
Good for: people who love Rachael Ray
Bad for: people who hate Rachael Ray

The objective view: Rachael Ray shows viewers how to prepare a diversity of filling meals in under 30 minutes with easily attainable ingredients. Her recipes are do-able for almost anyone, and she’s inspired more home chefs than possibly even Julia Child. Also, she has dogs.
The subjective view: Anyone who uses the word “yummo” in regular conversation deserves ... well, a food empire, apparently.

Sara’s Secrets with Sara Moulton (Food Network)
Good for: Anyone
Bad for: N/A

Repeat episodes of this show are becoming ever so rare, and that’s a big, fat bummer. If you have the good fortune to catch Sara Moulton on anything, you’ll quickly find she’s a lot like my friend K – quiet, competent, and blonde. It’s really a pleasure to watch her cook, and like Alton or the America’s Test Kitchen crew, she’s a great teacher of the basics. Suggested viewing.

Simply Ming with Ming Tsai (PBS)
Good for: anyone, but especially Chinese food lovers
Bad for: people with ginger allergies

America’s most famous Chinese chef, Ming Tsai makes a wonderful case for eating the cuisine exclusively. Also? He’s super-hot. Suggested viewing. (Especially for all the ladies out there.)

Food 911 or Tyler's Ultimate with Tyler Florence
Good for: anyone
Bad for: N/A
Tyler specializes in meals fundamental to American menus, but branches out from time to time with positive results. Provided Good Eats and America’s Test Kitchen aren’t broadcasting at the same time, those searching for the end-all-be-all macaroni and cheese recipe could do worse than starting here.


Barefoot Contessa (Food Network)
Good for: anyone - especially if you own a beach house
Bad for: N/A

I put Ina in the intermediate section for two reasons: 1) she tends to use some expensive ingredients, which beginner cooks may not want to experiment with yet, and 2) that Kitchen-Aid standup mixer makes an appearance in 50% of her recipes, and it’s kind of an advanced tool. If neither of these apply to you, please tune in to Barefoot Contessa RIGHT NOW. Ina rules, and her recipes simply do not fail. Even if you don’t give a flying crap about braising, icing, or frying, it’s worth a gander for the soothingness of her voice. Suggested viewing.

Boy Meets Grill with Bobby Flay (Food Network)
Good for: dudes, chile pepper lovers, people with grills
Bad for: people who hate mango

The Flayster. Flayorama. The Flayonator. Food Network built part of their empire on this man’s back, and it’s kind of easy to see why. His food is fun, gorgeous, and unifying, in that it marries a lot of fruit and spiciness to great effect. Like Ina, Flay’s tools and ingredients can be a tad expensive (he works with a bunch of seafood), which is why he’s not in the beginner’s category. Nonetheless, Boy Meets Grill is a great resource for recipe ideas, particularly if you’re planning a backyard shindig.

Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello (Food Network)
Good for: easy entertainers
Bad for: difficult entertainers

For those who need to wow a crowd, Michael Chiarello is the man with the plan. Based in Napa Valley, Easy Entertaining concentrates on classy, crowd-friendly dishes, often created with neato wine pairings in mind. The ingredients could run a buck or two, but otherwise, Chiarello’s fun to watch.

Essence of Emeril or Emeril Live with Emeril Lagasse (Food Network)
Good for: anyone, especially Louisiana food lovers
Bad for: Emeril’s nemesis - Evil Emeril

There’s not much to say about Emeril that hasn’t already been covered by every food blog, ever. Yet, in spite of his tiny-bit-hammy onstage persona - dude can cook like the dickens. Watch and learn.

Lidia’s Italy with Lidia Bastianich (PBS)
Good for: anyone, especially Italian food lovers
Bad for: N/A

Lidia is my secret Italian grandma – the one who whipped up massive Istrian feasts every Sunday without breaking a sweat. Her elegant show is a gentle wonder, and her children’s occasional appearances are always good for comic relief. The abundance of handmade pasta may be a bit complex for newbies, but otherwise, Lidia’s Italy is aces. Suggested viewing.


Lessons with Master Chefs with Julia Child (PBS)
Good for: the cult of Julia, anyone
Bad for: people who believe this is actually Julia Child

From what I’ve seen of this older show, it’s lovely and not as slick as today's cooking series. There aren’t many beauty shots (of the food) and the techniques seem to fly by fairly quickly, which makes them a tiny bit harder to follow. That said, it’s Julia fargin’ Child. The woman didn’t become the first lady of American cooking for nothing. Plus? Apparently, Meryl Streep signed on to play Julia in the upcoming Julie & Julia movie, so that’s fun.

The Martha Stewart Show with Martha Stewart (NBC)
Good for: moms, organized people, fans of Real Simple, anyone
Bad for: frat guys

Do you spatchcock? Would you like to know how? Martha knows. In fact, Martha knows everything, except possibly how to project enthusiasm loudly (though she can be dryly hilarious, and isn’t above poking fun at herself). Her show is faboo for creative meal ideas, from flavor combinations to placemat patterns to cupcakes that look like toadstools. And while Martha’s recipes can occasionally seem very Sunday Dinner in Cape Cod, those who look past her image will discover a treasure trove of kitchen brilliance.

Molto Mario with Mario Batali (Food Network)
Good for: anyone, especially Italian food lovers
Bad for: N/A

Look, this guy is a GREAT chef (I’ve eaten at two of his restaurants), but preparing his food on my own scares the crud out of me. Those not totally intimidated by Mario’s awesomeness should DVR this show at every possible opportunity. He’s not just a wonder to behold, but a veritable fountain of culinary knowledge as well.


Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee (Food Network)
Good for: people who hate food
Bad for: everyone else
Two words: Kwanzaa Cake.

UNKNOWN (Input welcomed)

Daisy Cooks! with Daisy Martinez (PBS)
Down Home with the Neelys (Food Network
The Hot Australian Guy That Cooks for People in Their Homes (?)
Jamie at Home with Jamie Oliver (Food Network)
Kathleen Daelemans (Food Network)
Mark Bittman (PBS)
Nigella Feasts with Nigella Lawson (Food Network)
Party Line with the Hearty Boys (Food Network
Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller (Food Network)
Simply Delicioso with Ingrid Hoffman (Food Network)

Comments are open and I’d love to hear your input. Thanks!

(Photos courtesy of,, and

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Sandra said...

I don't like being negative, BUT I can't stand Down Home with the Neelys. Perhaps the food info is good, but I can't get past all the public displays of affection, literal and verbal. I don't need that much "sugar" with my food info, pleeeeeze.

Anonymous said...

For pure food porn, I'd suggest "Mexico-One Plate at a Time" - Rick Bayless' show on PBS. The colors and food are gorgeous, Rick seems so NICE, but I'd never have the courage to tackle his dishes.

MrsErinS said...

If you can't find Sara Moulton on food's easy to find her weeknight dinner show on PBS. I'm a huge fan of that show. Quick, easy recipes with mostly pantry items. I've made quite a few of her recipes and they're all delicious.

Jenn said...

A lot of the shows mentioned are not on Food Network anymore, but they ARE on Cooking Channel (which is owned by Food Network and used to be Fine Living). It's SO MUCH better than what Food Network has turned into.

Beth said...

Big fan of Daisy Cooks! I would put her in the beginner in terms of difficulty, but she often uses ingredients available only if you happen to live in a major metropolitan area with a great hispanic grocery. She's energetic, fun, and ties her family and upbringing in nicely with the food she makes. I've learned a lot about Puerto Rican food from her.

Making and Saving in the LBC said...

I love Down Home with the Neely's. They enjoy working together with food. It's a nice switch (especially from Sandra Lee and Paula Deen). They do cook a variety of food and I have tried a few of their dishes. I have watched Robin Lee several times and while she is pleasant, I just do not find the show memorable. I find Bobby Flay and Tyler Florence unbelievably cocky and impossible to watch. Still love Alton Brown. Miss Sara Moulton. Nothing on Food Network compares to America's Test Kitchen. The first time I caught the show, I described it as watching an entire week of Food Network in 30 minutes.

Candace said...

I have to agree with Sandra. The Neely's are just too syrupy for me.

Andyz1girl said...

I enjoy Just Cook This! with Sam the Cooking Guy. The food is good for you but not health-foody; looks good; and is simple to prepare. He's on Fit TV. Website:

Sam said...

The recipes in "Mexico-One Plate at a Time" are spot on and Rick has good technique. Another good one is "Made in Spain" with Jose Andreas. Jacques Pepin will always be number 1 in my book and the Cook's Illustrated/Cook's Country shows are very educational. Any of these shows will give you a great base/leaping off point.

Bob said...

I feel like I need a cigarette after a romp with the Neely's. ;-) In Rachel Ray's defense, she got this guy into the kitchen with the concept of making a meal in 30 minutes. I have since branched out, but thanks to her I was not afraid to get my feet wet.

Great blog here. I check it every day.

Laura said...

That hot Australian guy? Curtis Stone. The show? Take Home Chef. Sadly no longer on the air, but you can still get recipes here:

Or just look at the pictures of Curtis...

Lynell said...

Grilling U with Steve Raichlen is a must for any meat lovers out there. That show makes me swoon. I agree about Sandra Lee, can't stand her or her cooking... or her cocktails and 'tablescapes'... But all in all I've learned a ton from cooking programs and am probably addicted. Healthy or artery clogging, there's something to learn from them all. Better than reality TV programming at least.

carter @ the kitchenette said...

The Neelys - PLEASE TAKE THESE PEOPLE OFF THE AIR. They give new meaning to the phrase "food porn."

Side note: I love that you referred to a chef as "That Hot Austrailian Guy." You win. Forever.

I also humbly ask to add "Ten Dollar Dinners" with Melissa D'Arabian to the "Unclassifiable" category. Everything she makes is brown and looks like something my dog yakked up on the carpet.

AmyinMotown said...

I love Nigella. She was my "gateway chef." In later shows, she got a little too self-parodying, but I think she's cool and has a kind of easy elegance I aspire to and will never, ever acheive. I'd say savory recipes are never-miss, but not chepa or healthy; sweet are hit-or-miss.