It is really hard to rival the greatest foodie show of all time–Iron Chef. A palpable battle to the death of sorts, or at least that’s the way it made us all feel. International theme and haute cuisine met flying five-finger, one-armed shaolin exploding death touch style, with expert chef Alton Brown at the helm of the American version of the show, teaching us how to make our own meals better with a shuffling cast of interesting judges including Jeffrey Steingarten, Ted Allen, Mo Rocca, and even Jeri Ryan. And it gave Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Masaharu Morimotu the status of food royalty.
Other shows are watchable in their own right, inspired by Julia Child’s original idea they expand what we think about food, how we serve it and what ingredients we use. These include Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, a show that allows us to go local or travel to test the best food around (I eat at one of the featured dives at least twice per week), No Reservations with Anthony Bordain takes us on a tour with a not particularly pleasant foodie to see what’s good around the planet, and no show since Julia Child educates us more than Alton Brown’s Good Eats. The most fun seems to follow dessert shows, with Chef Duff’s merry band of friends who ran Ace of Cakes making for a great, almost utopian fantasy workplace show and then there was the great Mark Sommers’ run on Unwrapped, where he showed the business of scrumptious candymaking. My strawberry rhubarb pie is all the better because of these shows.
When you bring the “reality show” or cooking competition show into the mix, you get some of the fun of Iron Chef, but at a different level of entertainment. Top Chef and The Next Food Network Star featured rival food channels showing the ugly side of competition as most reality shows offer these days, with competitors becoming more of caricatures than anything tolerable in real life circumstances. All but one, that is. And that show is the gem of a cooking show in its second season in the States on public television, The Great British Baking Show.
You can pretty much dive into this show at any place in the season and catch up. Bakers attack three challenges–a signature bake, a technical bake, and a showstopper–each week trying to impress judges Mary Berry, a 60-year veteran and author of 80 cook books, and professional baker and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood, enough to survive to the next round and eventually be crowned Britain’s best amateur baker, or “Star Baker”. British comedians Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc add some good fun, even some food history, and make great hosts. Unlike the more feisty American cooking competition shows, The Great British Baking Show is so…very… British in its very thoroughly polite nature. Yet the bakers are stunningly good experts at their craft, from all walks of life, and the entertainment factor is all the more compelling because each episode is truly a series of battles of man vs. himself and woman vs. herself more than venomous battles between each other. Shot in an 18th century manor lawn in a giant white tent the show is still at once quaint and nail-biting.
Six seasons into the show, which is still airing new shows in he UK on BBC One as The Great British Bake-Off, we in the States have so much to look forward to as PBS spoon feeds us new episodes. The fourth season is airing currently on public television on Saturday nights as our season two (confusing!). The best feature? Traditional cooking with surprisingly vast cultural differences yet similarities to baked goods we may or may not have been exposed to before, all offered up in a way certain to tempt us to try new goodies. CBS tried a version of this show in the U.S. that not surprisingly bombed, with Jeff Foxworthy as host. It’s the British cooking, sensibilities, and that politeness that makes the concept all really work so well.
Is The Great British Baking Show the best show for foodies yet? It’s certainly a contender.
Get ready for some trifle, sandwich cakes, profiteroles, tarts, scones, and spotted dick. See The Great British Baking Show Saturday nights on PBS.