Correction to This Article
This article referred to cooking-show host Rachel Allen as Scottish. She is Irish.

TV Review: On the new Cooking Channel, everyone cooks but you

cooking channel
Roger Mooking of "Everyday Exotic" is one of the chefs featured on the Cooking Channel, a Food Network spinoff. (Geoff George)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At 17 days and counting, the Cooking Channel has acquainted American viewers with a batch of foreign cooks, the handiwork of food artisans and the subtleties of a Canadian accent.

The Food Network spinoff just hasn't taught them enough about cooking.

There were teachable moments, and show hosts such as Roger Mooking and Rachel Allen made the most of them. But when chef Chuck Hughes of "Chuck's Day Off" tells the camera his recipes are simple, then flips vegetables in a pan amid flare-ups while tossing around cheffy terms about his restaurant galley, it undermines the message.

General Manager Michael Smith says entertainment, not instruction, is the new channel's mission. To me, though, the assumption that its viewers already know how to cook has the effect of gravity on a cooling souffle. The younger target audience may indeed be more food-savvy than their parents. But that doesn't mean they know what to do in the kitchen.

Committed cooking-show watchers, myself included, spent way too much of Memorial Day glued to the debut lineup as Ching-He Huang stir-fried "Chinese Food Made Easy" and Manhattan mixologist Darryl Robinson exhorted folks to "Drink Up." A handful of episodes ran, and ran again, flanked by a precious few paid commercials that became mighty tedious.

As I watched into the wee hours, the MTV-MTV2 model came to mind: In the beginning, there was one network playing nonstop videos, which were gradually overtaken by reality programming and rockumentaries, which spawned a second channel that began playing . . . nonstop videos. These days, Food Network shows that draw the biggest numbers are about competition and towering cakes.

"This is Disney World's Magic Kingdom versus Epcot Center," Smith told me last week. "The kingdom is an entertainment experience, while Epcot is an immersion kind of thing. Food Network is for leaning back and being entertained, while Cooking Channel is more for people who want to lean in."

They might lean in, but lessons fall short of the ones anyone can glean from watching Jacques P├ępin bone a chicken or Ming Tsai make tempura on public television. The demographic that Cooking Channel is going for is 18-to-49, not the 50-and-up of culinary PBS.

It is not supposed to be a video cookbook, Smith says. "Getting recipe info is a very small part of why people watch. They want to be exposed to TV shows about different kinds of food."

That mission is accomplished, at least in the culling of recent cooking series from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. So keep in mind that when Cooking Channel's on-air talent says to "pop it into the oven at 180," chances are they mean 180 degrees Centigrade, or about 350 degrees to you and me.

How would a casual viewer be able to recognize the alternate oeuvre that Cooking Channel is going for? Production values, for starters. Mooking, a 36-year-old chef-restaurateur-musician, is one of several Toronto chefs featured. His "Everyday Exotic" is shot with his own soundtrack and lots of camera cuts. His multicultural background and overuse of the descriptor "amazing" convey the Cooking Channel vibe.

An "Exotic" show on papaya used the fruit in a variety of ways, demystified the term "gastrique" (a boiled-down sauce of vinegar or wine and fruit) and managed to deploy an entire can of coconut milk so none of it was wasted; all good instruction. The part where he tossed a lemon in the air and caught it with the upturned point of his chef's knife? Kids, don't try this at home.

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