Wednesday, November 13, 2013

watching 'The French Chef' in 2013

I used to be addicted to the Food Network. I knew every chef, every show, every dish. I would even credit my beginnings in the kitchen to my exposure to it (since I didn't lift a finger in the kitchen until I lived on my own and got sick of eating microwave macaroni and cheese). The Food Network made me want to elevate my own culinary experiences to the level of "delicious" and not just "adequate." 

But at a certain point, I started to outgrow it. I didn't need the chefs to educate me anymore. (And I also grew dismayed at how disconnected Food Network programming is from the larger issues of food in this culture - hunger and agriculture, primarily. But that's another story.) To me, the programming all became shiny and glossy on the surface and not enough substance underneath. And really? No one's food ever looks like the dish on TV because it isn't touched by 4 stylists between the kitchen and the plate.

Julia Child's The French Chef was America's first real cooking show - like the great grandmother of what you see now on the Food Network. But they wouldn't air her show in today's lineup, unless it was in the context of a tribute or documentary on the origins of food entertainment. Why? Because it's real.

I'm listening my way through a book about Julia Child and am gathering ideas for a Mastering the Art of French Cooking themed dinner. Being on a Julia kick, I recently watched through some of the episodes of The French Chef. (Available for free on Amazon Prime, and also on DVD.) They are utterly enchanting in all their imperfection. No fancy camera angles, no lens flares or vibrant colors, even when the program started appearing in color. What you see are messes, stacks of dishes, improvisation and mistakes. She laughs at herself and tells you not to take yourself too seriously. After all, if a classically trained chef can screw up an omelette flip, we can too! I can't imagine any Food Network chef telling me to have the "courage of my convictions" in the context of eggs.

In one episode she realizes she doesn't have the right lid for the pot she's trying to cover, so she sticks something else over it with a shrug. Today's food shows would do as many takes as it required to get it right. Would you ever see Sandra Lee with a big splotch of wine on her pristine white shirt? Or the Barefoot Contessa wiping her hands on her clothes? Watching Julia is watching a reflection of me in the kitchen. (Just a 6'3" version of me in heels and an apron.)

You can also feel how genuine her happiness is when something turns out right, because it's instant and isn't rehearsed. The woman makes her own sound effects when she moves garlic through a press and into her dish. If that's not joy in cooking, I don't know what is.  (And I will henceforth exclaim "sploosha!" when I use my garlic press.) 

If you have ever had the experience of wanting to make a dish worthy of the Food Network, but are intimidated by the process, watching Julia removes that barrier. Your kitchen doesn't have to be fancy or pristine, your tools state of the art, or your chopping skills mastered. You just have to have the courage to try in the first place.

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