Out to dinner the other night, we ordered a really excellent “slider” that had a tempura Sea Scallop and some cabbage salad with jalapenos (big shout-out to The Shed At Glenwood, a great restaurant flying somewhat “under the radar” here in Atlanta). The idea of “sliders” (along with “gourmet” burgers and pizzas) has pretty much reached its apex with me, and I generally avoid ordering them as they seem just silly to me; but this one was really good, made with a very fresh-tasting scallop, nice and fat, and perfectly cooked. The tempura batter reminded me, for some random reason, of watching Martin Yan running down a tempura recipe on “Yan Can Cook” years ago on PBS on Saturday mornings: “One egg-uh white, two tabe-uh spoon corner-stahch…”
I can now admit to watching Yan on TV all those years ago. At the time I fancied myself quite the hot-shot line cook; and, as such, was always eager to learn all I could from anyone, as long as I respected them. To qualify as respected, they had to be actually working in their own restaurants of renown, every day, and had to be amongst those who had forgotten more about cooking and food than I would ever learn. In my mind, any “Chef” who only cooked on a TV show fell way short of those qualifications. As someone who was spoiled by having the privilege of working with just such a Chef back then, Masa Kobayashi, I felt I was qualified to judge. What a pompous ass I was back then (still am?). Like a kid watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, I would be transfixed; but I would be ready to jump up and change the channel (no remotes in those days; how primitive!), or feign disinterest should anyone enter the room and see me watching shows that should be held in contempt as “housewife” material.
Cooking shows back then were not nearly the glossy, high style productions they are now. Just as Captain Kirk’s battle with the Gorn comes off campy and cheesey when compared to the Matrix’s “I Know Kung-Fu” fight scene, with its high-tech, slow-mo, CGI effects, watching Emeri Lagasse “Bam” his way through a show on Food Network just doesn’t have the same classic entertainment value as Graham Kerr or Julia sousing their way through a Baked Alaska while polishing off a 750ml of Chablis. I’d much rather watch Justin Wilson explain how to make Etouffè in his rambling, back-woods Cajun drawl, than watch Rachel Ray make just about anything. And there was no Food Network or even Discovery Channel back then, just PBS. Cooking shows and their hosts were nowhere near the “rock-star” status of today. They were produced with the budgetary constraints of “viewer-funded” (and let’s be honest, how many of you have ever actually sent any money to PBS?) public television and consisted of the host showing you the ingredients, throwing half the recipe in a mixer, tossing it in an avocado-green Tappan oven, then standing around drinking, before pulling the “finished product” out of the oven 5 minutes later, already garnished with a sprig of watercress. The absolute best at this was “Chef Tell” Erhardt, who’s standard schpiel was usually something like, “ Take any sing you vant, throw it in any pan you vant, add some shallots, some chop par-z-ely, and I see you next veek…”
But for all their camp, unintended comic relief, and the drinking (even Jacques Pepin was knocking ‘em back before he brought his daughter on the show and had to clean up his act), shows like “Galloping Gourmet”, “The French Chef”, and my favorites, “Great Chefs of Fill In Name of City Here” were the ones who paved the way for the more glossy, Hollywood high-production-value offerings we have now.
For every tattooed Carmelo Anthony making millions and millions in the NBA today, there were dozens of Oscar Robertsons, Bob Cousies, and Jerry Wests that paved the way by playing fundamentally sound basketball for peanuts; and without Martin Yan (who is now relegated to appearances at County Fairs despite having written cookbooks and owning several respected restaurants), there would be no Paula Deen or, the most offensive of them all, Bobby Flay, raking in mega-bucks for showing you how to grill chicken. Even Julia needed thirty or so years of re-runs, a dozen or so cookbooks, getting pimped on by Dan Akroyd, and finally a movie, to get her due. It’s impossible to appreciate The Matrix without the Gorn.