Screen Cuisine

This arti­cle appeared in the Toronto Star on Decem­ber 28,2008.

Home for the hol­i­days? ‘Tis the per­fect time for relax­ing between fes­tiv­i­ties to savour some screen cuisine.

Hap­pily, there’s no short­age of tasty offer­ings on sev­eral channels.

In par­tic­u­lar, our appetite for food TV is unstop­pably fed by Food Net­work Canada’s eclec­tic 24-hour menu, one that has attracted an ever-burgeoning, increas­ingly var­ied audi­ence since it was launched in the fall of 2000.

Food TV has grown 20 per cent since last year,” says Emily Mor­gan, the network’s v.p. for con­tent. View­ers, she notes, have changed over the years and so has programming.

Orig­i­nally, we were a pure foodie ser­vice,” she explains. “Now, we’re also sat­is­fy­ing those who want entertainment-driven shows about the food world.”

These include what she calls “docu-soaps” like Gem­ini win­ner Chef School fea­tur­ing the lively, some­times shock­ing behav­iour of stu­dents and instruc­tors at the Strat­ford Chefs School in rural Ontario as they mas­ter knife and life skills in a pro­fes­sional kitchen.

Peo­ple want “food sto­ries,” Mor­gan claims, and few tell these bet­ter than the Brits.

Hence the con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­ity of inim­itable bad boy Gor­don Ram­say whose shows Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Night­mares and The F Word fall into this category.

Deb­o­rah Reid, pro­fes­sor and co-ordinator of the French culi­nary arts pro­gram at George Brown Chef School in Toronto, has lots to say about food TV in gen­eral and Ram­say in particular.

She watches food shows for at least an hour a day “to be informed, enter­tained and some­times inspired.” She also dis­cusses them with students.

They like shows with a real­ity hook,” Reid explains, adding that British shows of this ilk are among her favourites.

I’ve used exam­ples from the British ver­sion of Ramsay’s Kitchen Night­mares — not the Amer­i­can series which is sen­sa­tion­al­ist and stu­pid — to teach how to fix things in a restau­rant that have gone wrong,” she says.

I can talk the­o­ret­i­cally about food cost­ing,” she con­tin­ues, “but he goes in and makes it real by show­ing peo­ple who are cut­ting cor­ners and not being able to pay their bills.”

Reid con­cedes she wishes Ram­say, prone to rants and rage, didn’t have “such a potty-mouth” but gives him credit for teach­ing the real­i­ties of a restau­rant kitchen.

Toronto chef Mark McE­wan knows those real­i­ties well. He’s been a work­ing chef for 26 years and owns three restau­rants: North 44, Bymark and One. Next May, he’ll open a gourmet food shop called McE­wan at Lawrence and Don Mills.

His busy cater­ing divi­sion is the focus of a fast-paced, bril­liant docu-drama called The Heat now in re-runs on Food Net­work and for which he is cur­rently film­ing a third series.

The plus side of being a TV celebrity, he says, “is more pub­lic aware­ness.” He can’t walk down the street with­out being rec­og­nized and loves it when “a truck dri­ver, mechanic or business-man says they love my show.”

How­ever, film­ing in the hec­tic midst of a restau­rant open­ing or a big wed­ding can be “a bit of a mon­key on your back,” he adds. “Being on TV is another ele­ment to bal­ance and can add a big stress level.”

As for the use of exple­tives Ramsay-style, McE­wan tries to min­i­mize swear­ing, not­ing: “If I’m going to say that, I’ll fire the per­son first.”

Some shows are pop­u­lar for being warm and friendly. Reid cites Chef at Home, Chef at Large and Chef Abroad hosted by P.E.I. chef Michael Smith as stu­dent favourites. “He’s very approach­able and appeal­ing,” she explains.

Among com­pet­i­tive shows that pit chefs against each other with­out that often upset­ting “pack up your knives” cli­max, she names the long­stand­ing, still-cooking Iron Chef as edu­ca­tional and fun.

Fun is also key for Mary Luz Mejia, an asso­ciate pro­ducer with Fir­val­ley Pro­duc­tions and a direc­tor of excel­lent series At The Table With … now air­ing on Food Network.

It appeals, she says, “not only to peo­ple inter­ested in chefs and food but also those who enjoy a well put together biography.”

View­ers of food TV, she feels, are “vic­ar­i­ous eaters, arm­chair trav­el­ers, celebrity hounds and those inter­ested to see what famous chefs are cook­ing up.”

In addi­tion to learn­ing new tech­niques, how a dish is made, and what makes a good ingre­di­ent, she feels peo­ple now want to know: “Where’s the drama?” The result: A grow­ing num­ber of shows that are real­ity TV.

One she loves is the British-madeTwo Hairy Bik­ers cur­rently air­ing on BBC Canada. These unkempt mates travel the world on motor bikes explor­ing the cuisines of cities they visit.

You wish you could have din­ner with them and pick their brains,” Mejia says. “You know you’d have a good time.”

So what screen cui­sine can we look for­ward to rel­ish­ing in 2009?

Ram­say will have plenty on his plate in the New Year putting out fires caused by an alleged affair as wife Tana stands staunchly by his side. Still, his never-dull kitchen antics con­tinue to be must-sees for many.

Mor­gan is excited about a new series: 100-Mile Chal­lenge. In it, authors of The 100-Mile Diet Alisa Smith and J.B. MacK­in­non lead a B.C. com­mu­nity through a social exper­i­ment she describes as a mis­sion “to change lives, lessen their envi­ron­men­tal foot­print and eat better.”

Hap­pily, clas­sic stand­bys Nigella Law­son, the Bare­foot Con­tessa and Jamie Oliver keep on cookin’. Here is a typ­i­cally sim­ple dish of Oliver’s that’s tried, true and delicious.

Jamie’s Roast Chicken

About 4-lb/2 kg chicken

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lemon, washed

1 gar­lic bulb, bro­ken into unpeeled cloves

Hand­ful of fresh thyme

Olive oil

¾ cup dry white wine or chicken stock

Pub chicken with salt and pep­per inside and out. (Do this in the morn­ing, if pos­si­ble, then cover chicken and refrig­er­ate until ready to roast.)

Pre­heat oven to 350F.

Bring medium saucepan of salted to water to boil. Add lemon and gar­lic. Reduce heat to low; sim­mer 12 min­utes. While lemon is still hot, poke holes in it with skewer.

Pat chicken dry with paper tow­els; rub with olive oil. Stuff lemon, gar­lic and thyme into cav­ity. Place on wire rack in roast­ing pan. Roast in oven about 1 to 1½ hours or until meat is cooked through. Near end of roast­ing time, pour wine or chicken stock into roast­ing pan around chicken; con­tinue to roast.

Remove lemon, gar­lic and thyme from chicken. Squeeze gar­lic all over it; dis­card skins. Serve with pan juices.

Makes about 4 to 6 servings.

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