Cooking television is a huge business, and has changed the culinary world deeply. A chef can become a celebrity, and it can all start with one hour on Iron Chef or Chopped. Food is a road to fame now, in a way being a cookbook author could never provide. I don’t mean to sound cynical — I still think most cooking television is just fine, if formulaic. But right now, some the best cooking television ever made is on Netflix (US). Even if you’re not a home cook, a foodie, or a three star chef, I think these five shows could be your next big Netflix binge or kitchen inspiration.
Worst Cooks in America
As someone who never acquired a taste for reality TV, I didn’t expect to like this competition show nearly as much as I do. Hosted by two of Food Network’s biggest personalities (Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay), the show finds its contestants American Idol style, through an audition process. I know some of you are rolling your eyes, but Worst Cooks is surprisingly well constructed. Unlike the majority of US reality television, it feels refreshingly honest. Burrell and Flay play off each other well, making the most out of their contrasting personas. The show doesn’t lean so heavily on conflict or comedy that was synthesized through clever editing. What I think is so valuable about the show is that it highlights the essential skills and foundations that home cooks can easily overlook.
Best Episode: “International Cuisine”, in which the contestants must face common foreign ingredients they have no clue how to handle.
If you liked the deeply inspiring Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this one’s for you. Jiro director David Gelb created this series as a Netflix exclusive, highlighting six chefs that are making waves in the culinary world. Every episode is an immaculately produced portrait; a showcase of potent documentary filmmaking. Like Jiro, the show indulges in frequent slow-motion and shallow-focus “food porn”, but that indulgence is a crucial part of what makes Chef’s Table so different and, frankly, so good. You might not learn a whole lot about cooking from watching it, but I believe it’s got the best cinematography and best music in all of food television. It’s a powerful meditation on work ethic, craftsmanship, and artistry that will resonate with anyone with creative pursuits.
Best Episode: “Francis Mallmann”, in which the famed Argentine chef shows us around his rustic and isolated Patagonian home.
America’s Test Kitchen
If it’s technique you’re looking for, look no further. The crew on America’s Test Kitchen are the same folks who’ve been writing Cook’s Illustrated Magazine since 1993. Their scientific trial-and-error approach to recipe development is all about educating their audience, taking care to explain the “why” behind every method. While ATK might be a bit nerdier (okay, a lot nerdier) than your typical Food Network cooking show, you’ll always finish an episode knowing more about cooking than you did before. The recipes are great, but the techniques you’ll learn from this show can help you become a home kitchen ninja. Sadly, host Christopher Kimball is about to star in his final season of the show. I’ll miss Kimball, but I know the test cooks will continues to do a bang-up job without him.
Best Episode: “Elegant Brunch Favorites”, in which we lean how to make a deliciously buttery no-knead brioche.
Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, and Monty Python. These were Alton Brown’s inspirations when he dreamt up Good Eats, the wackiest show in Food Network history. Brown is a filmmaker turned chef, a Southern boy whose culinary curiosity led him to this conclusion: no one was teaching the public about food science in an engaging or entertaining way. Good Eats lasted a solid 14 seasons, each episode a 21-minute triumph of low budget filmmaking. Yes, he and his oversized props, foam models, and sock puppets might be a bit corny, but that means the show is suited for all ages. For the grown-ups, the show is packed with movie homages (Jaws shows up a lot) and riffs on characters from classic fiction. Good Eats wasn’t just about recipes and seeing smiling, attractive faces over hot stoves — it was about making a difference in the way people thought about food. There have been rumors of its return (or at least something in a similar vein) from Brown, and I’d love to see it happen. I’d also love to see Food Network find a way to put all 14 seasons online, remastered in HD. As of right now, only a select few remastered episodes are available on Netflix.
Best Episode: “Stew Romance”, in which we learn the best method for slow cooking short ribs for Hungarian Goulash.
The Mind of a Chef
Easily the best of the bunch, PBS’s The Mind of a Chef might just be the pinnacle of contemporary food television. It’s honest, entertaining, informative, thoughtful, and smartly made. Anthony Bourdain narrates, but not so frequently that it becomes his show. Season one features Momofuku chef David Chang, whose sardonic humor and eagerness to learn made the show unforgettable. The next three seasons all feature two chefs, splitting each season in half to follow great chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton, Magnus Nilsson, and Ed Lee. It covers the culinary gamut from haute cuisine to regional working class food, putting chefs in the forests of Sweden and the street markets of Senegal. Three of the show’s four seasons are on Netflix (US), with the fourth expected to arrive on the platform this year.
Best Episode: “British Classics”, in which April Bloomfield cooks and elevates signature dishes from her home country. Fish and chips, anyone?