In the early days of TV cooking shows, hosts Julia Child and Graham Kerr were quirky and entertaining as they guided audiences through everyday mishaps (burnt poultry) and triumphs (fluffy soufflés). Chefdom today seems focused more on celebrity than cookery. While Rachael Ray’s cheesecake poses distract from her sloppy culinary technique and Anthony Bourdain chews into colleagues with as much relish as he does food, the heat seems to be everywhere but the kitchen.
In the 1950s, as television’s popularity rose and the quality of American cuisine diminished, the invention of frozen, compartmentalized dinners designed to be eaten in front of the tube was perhaps inevitable. Fortunately, some stomachs and mouths never stopped grumbling over the loss of generations of culinary knowledge. In the following decade two unlikely TV heroes emerged to reteach the gustatory arts: Julia Child, a six-foot-two-inch-tall former wartime spy with a strangely undulating voice; and Graham Kerr, a fast-talking Brit with a glass of wine habitually in hand. Each headlined a cooking show broadcast on PBS: Child, The French Chef, and Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet. What made these programs popular was the unabridged quirkiness of the hosts. Child could expound at length about categories of poultry, which she called the “chicken sisters.” Kerr, despite having prodigious skill, maintained a comically desperate relationship with his food, failing to unmold cakes and assuring his audience that the cherries in the pan were, indeed, burning. In 1996 Child and Kerr teamed up for a PBS special, Cooking in Concert. When Kerr tasted Child’s spicy rouille (garlic sauce), he quipped that he felt “violated.” Child responded, “I didn’t know it was that easy.”
Julia Child’s kitchen—familiar to viewers of several of her cooking shows—was comfortable, humble and accommodating. There was no such thing as a mistake. During a French Chef episode when she flipped a potato pancake right out of the pan, she simply scooped it back up and asked conspiratorially, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?” In the 1980s Child appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to cook hamburgers. The cooktop failed, so she blithely improvised steak tartare and broiled cheese on top with a blowtorch.
In newer cooking shows, working in a kitchen seems as harrowing as attending boot camp. Volcanic-tempered British chef Marco Pierre White and his protégé Gordon Ramsay have taken turns humiliating hopeful culinarians on the U.K. reality show Hell’s Kitchen. Ramsay screams insults until he’s hoarse; White lurks around brandishing a knife. Anthony Bourdain shone a startlingly revelatory light on restaurant-kitchen misbehavior in his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000), depicting a drug- and sex-infused world populated by outcasts “dressed like pirates.” But despite their differences in manner, Bourdain esteems Child. He ranks her as the “single most important, influential and game-changing figure” in American cuisine.
Graham Kerr appropriated the title for his best-known cooking show from The Galloping Gourmets, a 1967 book he and Australian wine enthusiast Len Evans published after traveling the globe searching out scrumptious meals. In each episode of his show, Kerr trotted onstage, showed footage of a faraway restaurant’s signature dishes and demonstrated how amateur cooks could re-create the succulent roasts and luscious desserts at home.
Televised traveling food binges now range from the cultured (Mario Batali and Mark Bittman’s Spain…on the Road Again) to the uncouth (Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives). Former restaurant chef Anthony Bourdain went everywhere from Mozambique to Uzbekistan on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations (2005–2012). But unlike Kerr, Bourdain (who calls his broadcasts “food porn”) is all show and no tell. That may not be a bad thing—most viewers don’t want to replicate the experience when Bourdain gets kinky and swallows a beating cobra heart or the rectum of a warthog. In a similar vein, viewers may want to abstain from the menu Fieri derived from his Food Network travels for his Times Square restaurant; after eating there, New York Times critic Pete Wells wondered, “Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?”
The world of celebrity cookery sometimes seems like a colossal food fight among insult-hurling egomaniacs. At the center of many such squabbles is sharp-tongued chef-at-large Anthony Bourdain, who doggedly harasses stars of cable TV’s Food Network. He lambasted cooking show host Rachael Ray for offering the “smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough.” He dubbed Southern chef Paula Deen, before her 2013 fall from grace amid accusations of racism, the “most dangerous person to America” for unhealthful dishes such as Fried Butter Balls. He called a cake made by “semi-homemade” cuisine promoter Sandra Lee a “crime against humanity.”
Most of these feuds boil down to a dichotomous view of cuisine. Bourdain enjoys food unfamiliar to the average American—whether it’s exotic street fare or a Michelin-star-rated restaurant’s tasting menu. He has served as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, where cooking requires intimate knowledge of esoteric techniques. Across the divide, Ray makes accessible, unfancy dishes that don’t entail searching ethnic food markets for obscure ingredients. Though Bourdain finds Ray’s food pedestrian, this doesn’t seem to matter to her audience, who might agree with Mark Twain’s assessment that “cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”
Julia Child and Rachael Ray are among the most famous cooking show hosts in the genre’s half-century history. But how did we get from Child to Ray? In “Look Back in Hunger,” a 1995 New Yorker article, critic Anthony Lane assesses the culinary landscape via Julia Child’s Way to Cook and other cookbooks. While Lane finds himself lost in Child’s instructions for trussing a chicken—he claims you need a “batch of test poultry” and a “professional chef on hand” to master the labyrinthine directions—he admires Child’s desire to teach. But to those celebrities who aspire to “star” in their own cookbook, he offers as a warning Entertaining with Regis and Kathie Lee: Its cuisine is upstaged by the photographs of talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford “with her mouth wide open, as if to catch any mouthfuls flying by.”
TV cooking personalities have gotten only more absurd since Lane’s vicious reckoning. Rachael Ray smiles madly in all her publications, and on both page and screen exudes a grating, giddy enthusiasm. Child certainly charmed audiences, but one can hardly imagine her in Ray’s shoes, exclaiming “Yum-o!,” lamenting the lack of “Smell-O-Vision” or posing pinup-style in a men’s magazine.
Julia Child first appeared on her own television program in 1963, cooking the wine-saturated French stew boeuf bourguignon. She ended the episode with a cheery, offhand “Bon appétit!” In the U.S. that common French salutation now evokes Child, who achieved remarkable fame at a time when cooking shows were not exactly “must-see.” In 1971 New York Times critic John J. O’Connor called her “public television’s genuine superstar.”
Thomas Keller—French-trained chef and owner of the French Laundry, one of the world’s most venerated restaurants—credits Child with reintroducing Americans to the “pleasures of food and the pleasures of the table.” Child enjoyed dropping into the kitchen of Keller’s Napa Valley eatery before dining, and his employees appreciated her interest in their cooking. (They were also, Keller confessed, “nervous wrecks” about feeding the culinary icon.) Despite Keller’s idolatry, the French chef in him couldn’t help engaging in a posthumous cook-off with Child: He took on her signature boeuf bourguignon, “knowing not only that Julia Child cooked that dish…but that it’s been cooked in France for decades if not centuries.” Child’s was a straightforward, one-pot meal; Keller’s requires multiple steps and dishes that turn the kitchen into a busy scullery.
In 2002 blogger Julie Powell began chronicling her attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Powell’s failures and successes, cuts and burns became a best-selling book—and later a movie—Julie & Julia. Child, who trained at the prestigious French school Le Cordon Bleu, thought Powell not a “serious cook” and the endeavor a “stunt,” according to her editor, Judith Jones.
But Powell was a blogosphere pioneer, and many home chefs have followed her. Deb Perelman, who began the blog Smitten in 2003 to chronicle her New York City dating tribulations, transformed the website into Smitten Kitchen after she started a long-term relationship with the fourth person to leave a comment. Perelman’s postings about chopping and broiling in her tiny apartment have earned her both success—The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (2012) is a best-seller—and admiration from fellow cooks. Perelman, in turn, raves about Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, 2012), a compendium of Middle Eastern dishes that has inspired both professional and home cooks. Spreading the word through social media, Jerusalem’s fans compare the book’s impact to that of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking 50 years earlier.