It’s another weekend of near-constant rainfall and everyone in our house is stuck inside. Our podcasts are engaged and we’re moving about the house on one chore or another at the pace of snails in peanut butter. But there are only so many towels to fold, so many Gastropod episodes to listen to and so many trolls to slay in Skyrim… Everyone is getting board. I suggest taking the dog for a walk or maybe some mushroom hunting and Crystal visibly recoils, “you mean out there!?” pointing into the moist, grey world of perpetual misery beyond the window. *sigh*
A decade ago I would have flipped on the TV to Food Network and we would happily watch a couple early afternoon shows and let it run throughout the evening as background noise, but now cable TV is a far different (and much less interesting) beast. The once mighty metropolis has been reduced to a salted wasteland of bland talking heads, awkward diner crawls and ridiculous competitions.
We’ve adapted to the times. This is to say we don’t subscribe to or watch cable TV at all anymore. Most of our friends and co-workers are the same. A quick prowl around Youtube will reveal a vast array of shows that will actually inspire you to travel, eat and cook!
The best television Food Network ever produced was in the late 90s and now many of those golden age shows lie forgotten in the back alleys of the internet. Pick them up! And catch some rarely-seen BBC gems while you’re at it. Finally there’s always new, exclusive mini-series popping up on Netflix.
Now take these suggestions and the previous boatload of hatred for the modern Food Network with a grain of Himalayan sea salt. I’m not a TV critic, hell I’m not even a proper food critic. I’m just a guy who has lived the last decade and a half of his life around food and food culture and watched a lot of TV.
Ten Inspiring TV Series About Food
A Cook’s Tour
“Welcome To My World.”
From those first pulse-quickening words to the hurricane montage of kitchen insanity and finally lighting that delicious post-service cigarette, this show speaks loudly to the heart and soul of kitchen-folk everywhere. Back in the early ‘aughts Tony Bourdain – the patron saint of line cooks – fresh off the successful tell-all memoir Kitchen Confidential was handed a camera, a rather meager budget and a fistful of plane tickets by the fledgling Food Network and asked to cobble together something watchable. The result was a punk rock pub crawl across the globe that was raw, funny, energetic, and filled with a surprising amount of heart. It’s still Bourdain’s best show and my favourite travelogue of all time.
An in depth study of culinary artistry, insane egos and cutting-edge food by the guy who knows it best: David Gelb, the dude who brought the world Jiro Dreams of Sushi has teamed up with Netflix to create the internet’s prettiest homage to haute cuisine. Each episode focuses on one chef’s journey to superstardom through a series of interview snippets explaining their philosophy on food and how they came up with certain signature dishes. It’s a stunningly beautiful show, but pretty cheesy. There’s n awful lot of slow motion panning over the chef’s hand gently laying the last dot of whatever on the plate while Tchaikovsky swells in the background and plenty of syrupy meditations on “inspiration”. But floating in this ocean of treacle are islands of profound insight and opportunities to see how these legends organize their kitchens (and lives!) to produce modern culinary art.
Alton Brown is to food what Neil Degrasse Tyson is to astro-physics. He breaks down complex concepts and ideas into little bites that the layman can understand and does it in a way that is so freakin entertaining that a) You stay engaged and b) You catch his passion! I have so many friends and family that draw their initial interest in cooking directly to Alton’s 14 season-long program Good Eats. Each episode features a general theme (ie. an ingredient or cooking technique) which is explained through a series of skits (featuring guest stars, muppets and costumes!) plus recipes to try at home.
In The Weeds
I caught an episode of this one on a flight to my brother’s wedding in Ontario. An hour and a half later I’d mainlined the entire mini-series! This all-Canadian road trip pairs accomplished chefs with knowledgeable forgers ‘n hunters and sets ‘em loose on the countryside to collect their dinner’s worth of wild edibles. It’s absolutely up my alley, but if you’re not into foraging it’s still really informative and entertaining.
Iron Chef Japan
I’ve already gone into obsessive detail about why I love this little 90s gem from Japan in previous posts, so I’ll make this one brief: It’s the best food show ever made. You can watch almost all of the English-dubbed episodes for free on Youtube.
Art, food, history and fast cars all collide in this beautiful little travelogue series from the BBC. British art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli tour the various regions of Italy in search of great food and beautiful pieces of art and architecture. Instead of just hitting the tourist traps they seek out smaller more obscure places and delve deep into their history and culture. Every cobblestoned alley leads to a new museum I want desperately to visit and every recipe Giorgio makes I want to replicate immediately!
Jamie At Home
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Jamie Oliver has a mad passion for food. From his early days as The Naked Chef through his hip, bohemian stint on Oliver’s Twist he’s never lost that spark of wide-eyed enthusiasm that made him a star in the first place. Years later when Food Network had basically finished with him Jamie released this two season series that became an almost goodbye to his North American fans.
Filmed at Jamie’s own farm (a sprawling estate in Essex with its own dedicated farmer) each episode focuses on a single seasonal vegetable or protein, how it’s gathered from the farm and a couple ‘o recipes in which it can be used. It’s got all the enthusiasm of his previous shows, all the “Whaz! Whooo! Look at that! Brilliant! Beautiful!” and so on tempered with a more mature simplicity and reverence for terrioir that comes with age and… Well, having your own million-dollar farmstead. It’s also beautifully shot, with every looking like a page out of some farm and garden magazine right down to Jamie’s selection of scarf and boots.
Mind Of A Chef
Here we have another Tony Bourdain joint (he narrates as well as executive produces) that shares the same premise of Chef’s Table (one chef’s life story/philosophy) but instead of making each chef a single episode Mind of a Chef stretches the story across an entire 16 episode season. So yeah, if you find David Chang annoying… Might ‘wanna skip season one! *laughs* But stick with it! There’s also Sean Brock, April Bloomfeild, Edward Lee, David Kinch and my boy Magnus Neilsson. With such a long-form structure the show has plenty of opportunity to goof off a bit. There are animated segments, long digressions about childhood junk food and lots of road trips to meet the people, places and foods key to each chef’s style. Think Lucky Peach, the show.
The Critic and The Pig
Vaughan Smith (the citric) and his hilarious buddy Josh Thomson (the pig) eat their way across New Zealand’s fine dining scene in this strange and hilarious little web-only miniseries. It’s a simple recipe for hilarity: Smith tries to keep every meal on the rails by focusing on the quality and craft of the food in the way that critic’s do while Thomson cares more about how much dip he can fit on his flatbread or how wide the washroom stalls are.
It’s pretty hard to find these episodes anywhere but on WatchMe.com so you’ll have to hop over there. You’ll eat up the whole series in about an hour!
The Supersizers Go… and The Supersizers Eat
The premise is as simple as it is packed with possibility; two witty hosts (restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian/Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins) adopt the personas of people living in a different era of Britain’s past for a whole week and eat nothing but the food of the times. The results, as you would expect are as entertaining to watch as they are destructive on the hosts digestion and state of mind.