As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I think TV is a great tool for learning some useful skills.  It probably seems like an obvious thing to say considering the significant number of cooking shows airing today, but television is a fantastic way to learn how to cook.

Being a chef is super, unbelievably, outrageously hard; being a pretty good cook isn’t nearly as tough.  Like learning any new skill all it takes is a little bit of inspiration, some keen observation and a tiny bit of perspiration and the skill will come.  If you are looking to eat better at home, get your kids, partner, spouse, roommates off your back, or simply want to blow away everyone at the next office pot luck, then read on.

Esquire TV’s Knife Fight is a great place to find some inspiration.  Chefs display some superb skills, have a whole lot of fun, and win bragging rights at the end.  The program is stylish, and the participants are well-trained and experienced in the kitchen but there are some similarities to cooking at home.

First, there is a time constraint, the Knife Fight chefs have an official time limit, in much the same way the home cook has the time restrictions that result from living a busy life; work, fitness, family, friends, volunteering, community activities, these things all create a time crunch.   Do we choose to cook real food or put junk in our bodies?  Real food can be cooked fast, this program proves it.

Second, the chefs are, as often is the case for the home cook, working hard amidst a great number of distractions – there’s a rowdy crowd consuming large quantities of alcohol and wondering what you’re cooking.  Did I just describe every Christmas at my granparent’s house or Knife Fight?  And that’s, again, the inspiring part; in spite of the rowdy crowd the Knife Fight chefs remain calm (mostly) and stay on task.

Finally, at the end of the episode when a winner is chosen, there is only a token reward; whether it’s a lame trophy as in the case of the program or a simple “thanks” from the family, the reward is really in a job well done.

My guess is watching Knife Fight will not only inspire the desire to become a better cook, but maybe to dress a little better as well; these people are pretty freaking cool!  Check it out on Esquire TV, Comcast On-Demand, or take a look at some of the best clips from the show on HULU and YouTube.

The next step of learning to cook using TV is observation; I recommend watching Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics with Ina Garten.  Whether it is working a spatula or a sauté pan or a knife, Ina is a master in the kitchen and she has no formal culinary training!  That’s right, one needn’t go to school to be a wiz in the kitchen and Ina proves it.  It’s true she was mentored by Eli Zabar and Martha Stewart; but the cool thing is, through the power of television you can be mentored by great cooks and famous chefs too, that’s what this whole post is about.  The pace is considerably slower than Knife Fight, but that’s great because the purpose of observation in this case is to get an idea of what a skilled cook looks like.

First, pay especially close attention to how Ina moves through her environment with calm, and ease.  When you get to the next step and start cooking try to remember her pace and emulate it; not too slow, not frantic, but steady.

Second, watch how she operates the tools she uses; whether it’s a knife, a spatula or a stand mixer she uses deliberate movements.

Finally, and one of my favorite reasons for watching her show, pay attention to how much she seems to enjoy what she’s doing.  Ina isn’t outrageous, shouting “Bam!” or “That’s off the hook!” like certain other Food Network celebrities; she simply seems pleased with the process and the product.  The home cook should enjoy what is going on in the kitchen or it becomes drudgery and resentment will fester and if that’s the case why bother, right?  Watch Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics on Food Network (check listings) or HULU.

Now we come to the part where some actual work is going to happen, the perspiration!  The best TV program, without a doubt, to watch when one is finally ready to start doing something in the kitchen is America’s Test Kitchen.  Hosted by Cook’s Illustrated Editor Christopher Kimbell this half-hour PBS program takes all the guess work out of cooking good food.  It’s called a test kitchen for a reason; they take a bunch of recipes, try them, figure out what works and what doesn’t and then produce their own recipe that results in the highest quality end product, and usually the easiest one to produce.

A couple of years ago I wanted to make a roast chicken with crispy skin, I searched for ATK on Comcast and found an episode on chicken just happened to be airing in a couple days; I watched it, did what they said and ended up with exactly what I wanted, a chicken with skin like glass!  I don’t mean to sound like an infomercial, but it really was amazing!

The program is broken up into segments; usually one or two recipes will be demonstrated, a taste test and an equipment review.  Each segment is full of valuable, real world advice for the home cook.  I’ve bought several kitchen tools and food items on their recommendation and they have yet to disappoint.  And, as I mentioned above, the recipes are well worth the effort.

There is a companion website, and a magazine, but they both cost money and though useful aren’t the same as seeing something on TV; search the guide on your cable or satellite provider and you will come up with multiple episodes.  I recently did a guide search for the show and found something like seventeen episodes within a ten day period, that’s around thirty recipes, providing a cooking guide with something for pretty much everybody.  The keys to cooking success with America’s Test Kitchen are simple:

First, follow the leader!  Do EVERYTHING they do.  When a recipe finally airs the cooks have made it several times, they’ve made mistakes, tried shortcuts, and screwed some stuff up so you don’t have to; just do it exactly as they do.

Second, don’t be a cheapskate; that may sound harsh but no matter how closely one follows the recipe, if the ingredients are no good the final product will be no good.

Finally, be fearless!  It is easy to feel overwhelmed when preparing a new food item, but like I said, they have taken all the guess work out so there is no pressure; relax, have fun and get ready to be amazed.

Watch America’s Test Kitchen on PBS (check local listings), Comcast On-Demand, or YouTube (there are lots of clips and even some full episodes).

If you want to be a good cook it doesn’t take formal training at a prestigious cooking school, or even an expensive course at a local culinary store; don’t get me wrong, those things are great, but if you have limited time, you’re low on funds, or it’s just not your thing, watching the programs I mentioned and then taking action will likely get you where you want to be.  Good luck and good cooking!

Extra Credit – If you an aficionado of all things electronic (computer nerd) like me, then I suggest tracking down Little Paris Kitchen with Rachel Koo, she uses a tiny (and I mean freakishly tiny) kitchen with a terrible stove and a toaster oven to make food that looks just amazing!  I figure if she can do what she does in her kitchen the rest of us can at least turn out a passable meal.

– John Morton