Watch and learn

I think I’m addicted to television cooking shows. For a long, long time, the Food Network was my go-to channel. I’d simply flip on the TV and leave it going in the background for hours, picking up a tip or two by osmosis as I’d go about my day. I got very used to the voices of celebrity chefs infiltrating my consciousness. However, thanks to the proliferation of reality TV cooking competitions, I hardly ever watch it anymore. Namely, my must-see TV now consists of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and Next Food Network Star.

Random thoughts about each series: Next Food Network Star would be the competition I’d be most likely to enter if I could. The challenges seem to be the most up my alley, although I have absolutely no desire to host my own television cooking show. The contestants seem to be fairly normal people and there’s not nearly as much of the high drama you find in some of the other series.

This past season’s winner, Melissa D’Arabian, was my top pick all along. The network promoted that runner-up guy as some kind of Zen food yogi, but he always just seemed half-stoned to me. Come to think of it “Let’s Get Baked” wouldn’t be a bad name for a cooking show… but I digress. Although she seemed a little hyper at first, I liked Melissa’s French-inspired food best; it looked the tastiest and the dishes she cooked often seemed like things I could see myself making at home. She’s already busted out several little cooking tips and hints that I have found extremely useful and am likely to remember forever. Plus, the woman has four little girls, all under the age of 5 (including 1-year-old twins!). Anyone who has time to deal with that AND cook gourmet dinners complete with do-it-yourself French pastry is my hero.

Hubby and I taped one of Melissa’s first shows on the DVR and were very impressed with it. On the season finale, part of her show demo meal was an individual potato gratin made in muffin tins. I downloaded the recipe and hubby and I have made it twice within the past week. It is ridiculously easy, and super tasty. Tonight, we’re going to give her crispy-skinned chicken breast a l’orange a whirl.

I like Hell’s Kitchen, but sometimes the drama gets to be a little much to bear. It’s like the American Idol of cooking shows with Gordon Ramsey cast as a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Simon Cowell. I know it’s all about ratings, but seriously. I’ve worked in a handful of restaurant kitchens with all different kinds of culinary personalities, and I’ve never seen anyone act that way. I’d certainly never want to work for someone who’d get in my face and call me an effing donkey, and I have to question the mental stability and sanity of anyone who does. Then again, some of the HK contestants are complete whack-jobs anyway.

Gordon Ramsey is obviously a good chef and has made a career out of being an uncompromising perfectionist. I suppose it’s a bit like playing basketball for Bobby Knight. I know he’s a good coach, (my fellow IU alumni are probably going to bust my balls for even making this comment at all) but aren’t there just-as-effective leadership techniques that don’t rely on fear, intimidation and masochism? I’ll watch Hell’s Kitchen, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t take it seriously.

Top Chef is perhaps my favorite cooking competition to watch. There’s no golden post or television show prize waiting, the winner simply gets a buttload of money to use to further their own culinary dreams and aspirations. In my book, that’s awesome.

These are hardcore, serious chefs and it’s fun to see what kinds of dishes they manage to produce. I don’t kid myself that I could hang with this level of crowd for a second; they cook using products and techniques I’ve never seen, hear of, or know how to spell. Last season, though, it was cool to see caterer Carla give fly-under-the-radar Hosea and snooty Stefan a run for their money in the finale by staying true to herself and her simple, cooking-with-love style. That’s the approach I’d take; I was sorry to see her lose it in the end by letting her sous-chef rattle her self-confidence.

Some of these chefs show off creativity that is truly stellar. In each episode, at least one contestant makes something that leaves me seething with envy and renews my interest in going to culinary school. For example, in this week’s episode, two of the top-rated appetizer dishes included a savory macaroon filled with avocado guacamole, and an apple sorbet in a little shot glass with a goat cheese cracker/cookie. YUM.

As an added bonus, I love, love, love the judging panel. Gail Simmons is like your best girlfriend, Tom Colicchio knows his shit but conveys criticism in a way that’s not soul-destroying, and Padma Lakshmi is a tasty visual treat that whets the appetite anytime she appears onscreen. (How in the world do these people eat all of that food without making themselves completely sick or gaining 200 pounds?)

Too early to make a prediction yet about this season, but I seem to think it’s going to be one of the two brothers.

Fellow foodies, leave me a comment! Your favorite cooking show and why????

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