Phyne Dyner’s take on cooking shows.

In Reviews on September 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Phyne Dyning is going on a very brief hiatus to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. This is a heads up because I didn’t want my reader (intentionally singular) to get anxious if my regular scratchings aren’t there when expected. L’shanah tova!

 I love (most) cooking shows and I got hooked on them in the days of The Frugal Gourmet and (faux) Cajun cook, Justin Wilson. A yellow notepad and pen is an absolute necessity whenever I sit down to watch my favorites.

Today, you’ll learn what I watch.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a chef, although I have cooked professionally without title.

Consequently, this will not be a review on anyone’s cooking ability. I have never (knowingly) eaten anything prepared by any of the hosts mentioned and it is a certainty that each one of them is a maestro in a kitchen. If you want food reviews and critical looks at professional cooks, served up by a non-professional/non-chef, head on over to the Pesky Diner’s blog.

Kitchen Nightmares

This is the only one of Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows I can stomach for more than a few minutes. The concept is brilliant and it gives viewers a behind-the-dirty-kitchen door look at how disgusting many swill-house kitchens can be. I have seen quite a few.

I always feel a bit bad for the owner. It takes guts to put your mistakes on national television, like politicians do. The featured joint is usually a feature because the local death panel (local diners) decreed that it must die. By the time Ramsay rides over the hill to rescue the place, the owners have resorted to all sorts of icky shenanigans to keep the doors open.

Between fits of cursing, Ramsay entertains us by spitting out food while emitting thespian-esque gagging sounds. If he could muster up a fart or two, he’d do it…but his head would likely cave in.

Ramsay suppresses his natural tendency toward being an arse just long enough to make his show tolerable. But, he still comes off as an arrogant little wanker in need of a thrashing. Presumably, in Kitchen Nightmares, he does so out of tough love: As if Judge Judy ran a substance-abuse counseling clinic.

One failing restaurant owner killed himself after his place was made into a Ramsay feature. Chef Ramsay denies responsibility. A lot of failed business owners commit suicide without Ramsay’s help. I agree.

Worth watching only if re-runs of Punky Brewster have been displaced by weather bulletins out of Peoria.

 Hell’s Kitchen

“The winner of this season’s Hell’s Kitchen will be given the opportunity to become the executive chef at my newest restaurant inside the walls of the glamorous Hanoi Hilton.”

With large doses of Pepto-Bismol, I can get through just under ten minutes of this show.

This is Gordon Ramsay at his arse-holiest. If you like watching YouTube videos of people being decapitated or small animals being mutilated, you’ll love Hell’s Kitchen.

The contestants come from the same parentage as the Japanese folk who are willing to eat something gawd-awful in exchange for a few minutes of screen fame.

As with a Kitchen Nightmares, this show also has a history of suicide: A failed contestant from Texas killed herself. Ramsay denies any responsibility. Failed reality show contestants, yet professionally successful, chefs and caterers commit suicide quite frequently. I agree.

After watching an entire episode, I considered slitting my own wrists.

Hitler would have loved this show. I don’t.

 Master Chef

The third in the unholy trilogy of Ramsay’s US offerings is Master Chef. In the show, Chef Ramsay is joined by two more notables in a venue, I am sure, he sees on par with the Three Tenors.

The show highlights, naturally, Chef Ramsay as the chief inquisitor and bastard…errr…master chef.

Restauranteur and vineyard owner, Joe Bastianich joins Ramsay and Chef Graham Elliot as they reveal to a parade of pretty outstanding home cooks that there is no Easter Bunny or “happily ever after” to be found in Ramsayland.

Bastianich is a cardboard cutout of his cardboard mother, Lydia Bastianich, who has her own (self-patronizing) show on public television. Chef Elliot appears to have retained some humanity and he often seems less willing than Ramsay or Bastianich to rip the still-beating hearts out of demoralized contestants.

I could see Ramsay as he brainstormed the show: “I know, let’s take some home cooks who love cooking, love food, and love to share it…and dash their f-ing dreams.”

A lot of the home cooks appearing on the show are spectacularly talented and I love watching them work, so long as the television sound is muted against Ramsay’s ongoing self-aggrandizement. I only caught the final episode for 2012. Runner-up, Josh Marks, was pure cooking pleasure in motion. I watched this guy with a lot of respect for his skill and devotion to the art of cooking. It was like watching a self-taught Yo Yo Ma. The winner was a young woman with total vision loss. She was inspiring to watch, but her cooking was less adventurous and challenging than Josh’s. I’m sure Ramsay pulled her cane out of her hand and pushed her down the stairs on the way out.

I know of no related suicides. These contestants are made of stronger stuff that the ones who volunteer to be abused in other Ramsay offerings.

Hitler and Pol Pot would have loved this show. Me? No thanks!

America’s Test Kitchen

 I’ll stay up late to watch this. It has every element I love in a cooking show.

Cooking: Not only do the chefs prepare some great dishes, they keep preparing them (off screen) until they get a version that is fantastic. Most of the meals are homey and familiar to home cooks. Best of all, the show shares the perfect version’s recipe with viewers so they can later claim bragging rights in front of their family and guests. Unlike most other cooking shows, the chefs also tell about their failures. It gives the show a very human touch and one that many other cooking shows could use. The show also offers up a bit of the science that is behind what happens in a pot or pan. Very cool stuff.

Equipment: Want to find out if you need that expensive, digitally controlled whisk? Watch the show and look at what the cast uses. Granted, the show is sponsored by manufacturers. But I’ve not seen a lot of partiality and the “best” equipment is not always synonymous with “most expensive”.

Cast: Host, Christopher Kimball, looks out of place in a kitchen. He’s painfully thin for a cook (Look at his old photos, he’s done a lot of work to lose a bunch of weight!) He identifies himself as an “aging hippie” and this conflicts sharply with his contemporary, accountant-like appearance.

He’s joined on the show by a cast of excellent chefs. My favorite is Julia Collin-Davison who has a bubbly personality and, despite being all business in the kitchen, comes across as a person who dearly loves to cook. She would be my runner up to Chef Jacques Pepin as the cooking professional with whom I would love to sit and enjoy a glass of wine.

Jack Bishop and Adam Ried top off the main cast members. Bishop often perplexes Kimball by presenting food items for tasting where price and name often do not correspond to “good”. Ditto, for Ried.

America’s Test Kitchen is brilliantly done.

Simply Ming 

Chef Ming Tsai hosts his fusion Asian cooking show with flair and humanity. Tsai comes across as one of the nicest guys in the kitchen.

His recipes are easily copied, and modified. He uses ingredients most people have access to and relies on pretty standard kitchen techniques. The dishes I’ve co-opted from him have always been spectacular and simple to prepare. My yellow notepad is always in reach whenever I watch him.

When I began collecting background information about the people behind my favorite shows, I was happily stunned to learn that Chef Tsai’s humanity is real. He’s an advocate for restaurants to disclose the presence of known allergens in their dishes and he published a cookbook that lists the known allergens in each one. What a mensch!

Tommy Tang’s Easy Thai Cooking

Chef Tang is an amiable man. He grins as quickly as he can chop an onion.

His show, however, is often a bit hard to follow. Thai cuisine is one of my favorites and I’d love to cook more of it. The problem with Tang’s show is that he often cuts away from a key part of the preparation or he gets sidetracked during his presentations. That’s too bad. It’s tough to learn Thai cooking from a presenter who is as easily distracted as a squirrel with ADHD.

Tang’s travelogue presentations of Thailand are a joy. The man is immensely proud of his heritage and showcases Thailand as a place other than rows of ten-sheet hovels and child brothels. I always enjoy a trip with Chef Tang as he sprints around Thailand.

Pack your running shoes. Tommy Tang can hustle!

It’s watchable and entertaining. Unfortunately, it’s not a great place to learn new cooking skills.

Food Trip with Todd English

This is a show that is largely about watching Todd English eat.

A recipe shows up occasionally, but the show mostly centers on Chef English opening his enormous maw and shoving food in. Then, he closes his eyes and smacks his lips.

Todd English looks at a plate of anything as if he had just come in from traveling west with the Donner Party.

The guy is a spectacular chef and cooking is why I watch cooking shows. Unfortunately, there is little cooking to be seen on this show. It should be called, “Watch Todd English Eat Stuff”.

The show follows the dismal example of Equitrekking (also PBS). The Equitrekking hostess must be related to a PBS television executive (or major donor) somewhere. The show consists of “Me: Sitting on a horse”, “Me: On a horse in (fill in location)”, “Me: Talking to other people on horses…etc.

This is food porn for gluttons. Maybe I’m wrong, but I find no enjoyment in watching one person eat: “My Dinner with Andre” where Andre didn’t show up.

Jacques Pepin (Essential Pepin and Fast Food, My Way)

This man is brilliant, affable, and modest. He may be the only living example of a modest Frenchman and he is the wonderful exception to the unfortunate, stereotypical image of the French.

Chef Pepin comes from a modest upbringing. Many of his recipes are from his childhood and he frequently tells viewers how his mother made versions of his classic dishes by using meat most people of the day would not buy. I like that. It gives this French master a lifelike feel.

You can always tell a superbly talented person by their modesty. Chef Pepin presents basic cooking techniques to viewers in a way that is not condescending. I learned to efficiently clean leeks from watching him over the years. Every time he dices an onion, he goes through the steps meticulously so that the newest viewer gets an opportunity to learn the right way to do something. When you watch him, you get a feeling how important he feels about getting people to love cooking.

The recipes presented by Chef Pepin are usually French classics. Some are easy and some are painfully difficult. There are recipes for every viewer’s ability.

Sometimes, despite his efforts, Chef Pepin takes off like a bolt of lightning. His charming French accent becomes unintelligible and, as a French-speaker, I find myself wishing he would just cut away to French entirely. But then he’ll take a sip of (always present) wine and slow down. The man, despite his occasional forgetting that he has people watching, tries desperately to convey his sincere interest in teaching people at home how to prepare food. I have a feeling that Chef Pepin would just look on with intense sorrow if he were to witness the horrors Chef Gordon (Gorgon?) Ramsay inflicts on cooks.

Chef Jacques Pepin’s shows are “must see” television. Bring your yellow notepad.

“Happy cooking!”

 Let’s Dish

This is another of my favorites. Chef Christopher Koetke presents a wide variety of recipes and techniques in an easy-to-follow and engaging way.

He should. Chef Koetke is the Dean of the Culinary School at Kendall College.

Despite his easy-going on-air personality, he seems to harness a fierceness for perfection that probably reduces his novice charges to jelly. He executes kitchen techniques with precision and, like Chef Pepin, he forces himself to slow himself down to human speeds as he works.

The recipes range from simple to moderately complex. A yellow notepad is a must. A word of warning: If you go to the Let’s Dish page on the Live Well Network’s website, watch the segment for the recipe you want to try. Then, print it. The printed recipes often leave out instructions and the list of ingredients can get confusing. Besides, the show is a pleasure to watch.

If I ever went to a culinary school to perfect my home techniques, I would make a run to learn from Chef Koetke.

This is good stuff!

Mexico – One Plate at a Time

This is the place to go if you want to learn about Mexican cuisine. It’s not all tacos!

Chef Rick Bayless is another of those wonderfully modest presenters. The man loves Mexican food and is anxious to spread his knowledge about it, and many Mexican-themed topics, to his viewers. When I first started watching him, he seemed like a “regular guy” who got a show simply because he has a flair for cooking Mexican food. The man’s biography is stunning! I was shocked. True modesty reflects true greatness.

The recipes are easy to follow. My yellow notepad gets a workout. While watching the show I learn “why” as well as “how”.

After my sojourn in West Texas, I was a bit put off by Mexican food. It always seemed greasy, over-seasoned, and slathered in what often looked like (and tasted like) scorched transmission fluid. Despite the huge population of first and second generation Mexican-Americans, West Texas has some of the worst examples of Mexican food on the planet.

Mexico – One Plate at a Time re-ignited my love for Mexican food.

The show has only one drawback: Chef Bayless’ daughter, Lanie.

Lanie shows none of the passion for cooking that her father has. She’s more of a distraction than an enhancement. Standing around woodenly while her father talks breathlessly about Mexican cuisine, one gets the impression that “Sweet Lanie” is there only because she’s not yet really decided what to do with her life. I wonder if her presence is sort of an occupational rehab. The show would be better without her and I hope that, if Chef Bayless is trying to ignite something in his daughter, that he would do it behind the scenes.

It’s a good show, if you can ignore the muffin-topped girl plodding listlessly around behind the star.

 Steve Raichlen (Primal Grill, etc.)

Chef Steven Raichlen is the master-apparent of everything grilled. He presents a variety of cooking techniques…grilling is not just tossing something over coals…and he does so in an engaging manner.

The recipes are simple and the show features many foods some people would never consider cooking over an open flame. The host lacks a bit of the modesty I enjoy in television cooks, but he’s not insufferable. Perhaps he doesn’t lack modesty? Perhaps it’s just that he’s confident? It takes guts to cook food over raw fire. There are a lot of variables you can’t control. Doing it on television takes real guts.

I’m always puzzled by the array of smoking grills, seemingly unattended, behind Chef Raichlen as he cooks the featured meal. Obviously, the show is not shot in California and Al Gore would probably go into cardiac arrest at the size of Primal Grill’s carbon footprint.

It’s “good” watching, but not spectacular. Men will have to shave after watching…there’s that much testosterone in each episode.

Katie Brown’s Workshop

This isn’t a true cooking show. There’s artsy-fartsy crafting too (Ick!).

Katie Brown was born too late. Her television persona is that of a consummate, bubble-headed hippie girl. Her show presents the Bohemian lifestyle (Think pastel scarves draped over a busted lampshade.) that is the essence of Phyne Dyning. Sure, she gets a bit syrupy. But she has an endearing earthiness as a base.

Brown came from modest beginnings. Her bio lists her birthplace as Petoskey, Michigan; a place well familiar to the Phyne Dyner. She exudes the simple mannerisms of folks in Northern Michigan, before it became a playground for the retired wanna-be rich and well-heeled fleeing Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw. If Brown were not married to a television producer, her show probably would not exist and she would probably be quite happy running a storefront eatery and thrift shop.

Her shows frequently have a pediatric theme where she builds or bakes things kids like to eat or create. If I were a young mother or father, this show would be a must-see.

Brown’s current life is much different than her past one. But there’s none of the “I made it…na-na-na” attitude that usually erupts in formerly modest folk who now live out heavily Tweeted lives inside suburban McMansions. Brown’s co-hosts and guests are typically “regular folks”, including one particularly charming, but ditsy, little blonde waif. Watching The Katie Brown Workshop is like getting invited for lunch at a young couple’s first real house.

I hope not, but I get the sense that Katie Brown is heavily managed and packaged. She remains a “fun” person, but it sometimes appears that she misses driving her famous “red Ford Pinto, filled with curry”.

It’s a fun show and one you should catch if you have your own band of crumb-crunching heathens underfoot.


That’s it. Those are the Phyne Dyner’s favorite (and hated) cooking shows. Like broccoli, mine may not be your favorites and you may adore Gordon Ramsay.

But that’s life. We can agree not to agree.

There’s a world of cooking fun that is virtually free for the taking. These shows give me the best way to love, rather than dread, mealtime.

For those who do not know, I assumed full cooking duties just months into marrying a woman who has been the lone jewel of my life…my “Woman of Valor”. She has accompanied me on a, sometimes, rocky journey that has carried her across America and onto three continents for well over thirty years.

Unfortunately the poor lady cannot cook, even if Gordon Ramsay held her at gunpoint. But I can’t do the things she can do. Despite her being culinarily challenged, she watches almost all of these shows with me.

I’m lucky that way.




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