The joy of cooking is in the watching

July 14, 1996|By Theresa Conroy | Theresa Conroy,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

The way he peels the garlic. Oh, when she slices red bell peppers into thin slivers.

How he laughs. How she spills. How he sautes.

TV chefs -- male, female, on public television, infomercials or the 24-hour TV Food Network -- have captured our attention.

Mary Ann Esposito, Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse, Nathalie Dupree, the Two Hot Tamales, Martin Yan and that grilling guy have simmered their way into our hearts -- reaching a rolling boil as stars of the small screen.

Sixteen million households subscribe to the 2 1/2 -year-old TV Food Network alone. By the end of the year, 4 million more are expected. The network receives 20,000 weekly letters requesting recipes. "In the Kitchen With Bob," where Bob Bowersox and guest chefs sell utensils and books, is the No. 1 show on QVC. During just one show, $2.1 million in orders were taken for 155,000 copies of a featured cookbook.

The undisputed queen of chefs, 82-year-old Julia Child, is still on the air, but now she's surrounded by dozens of other chef shows that specialize in everything from Southwestern cuisine to low-fat cooking.

If you toss together all the cooking shows on the TV Food Network, QVC, PBS, the Learning Channel, Lifetime and Discovery, what you have simmering is a new national pastime.

"There are many people who watch our networks and TV shows who never lift a skillet, and they watch the whole day," says Sue Huffman, spokeswoman for the TV Food Network.

"Some people watch it because they like to cook and they want the recipes," Huffman says. "Others watch it because it's not stressful, [it's] entertaining, easy to watch and very addictive."

To the critical TV-chef fan, each cook has a trademark that either endears him to the audience or drives people completely insane -- but either way keeps them transfixed.

Southern chef Nathalie Dupree is known for being incredibly sloppy. Jeff Smith (a k a "The Frugal Gourmet," or "Frug" for short) goes overboard on the "We Are the World" stuff. Jacques Pepin is just perfect. And sexy.

The chefs are just as baffled as anyone about the incredible popularity of cooking shows.

"We have taken the place of the grandmother and the aunt that people used to sit around the kitchen and talk to," guesses Dupree, who says she doesn't mind spilling batter because it makes her "real" to her audience.

"A lot of people are entertained by it," says "Cia Italia" host Esposito. "They are seeing foods that never grace their table. Eggplant!"

Yet eggplant alone does not make a cooking show a hit. It's the sloppy, annoying, cute or sexy way the chef handles that eggplant: The French flair of Pepin's slice-slide action across a leek Martin Yan counting out loud as he chop, chop, chops a bamboo shoot Nathalie Dupree making a total mess of a tomato.

It soothes our souls to watch sugar caramelize and butter brown, especially when those miracles are accompanied by hypnotic instructive voices and personal stories. "You could be hooking rugs, and people would watch you," Esposito says.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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