The Cooking Channel is the month-old spinoff to the Food Network, a little sister that's "a little grittier, a little younger, a little more contemporary," or so its programming executives are rehearsed to ritually chant. More accurately, it's a network for the viewer who wants to think of herself as edgy while simultaneously coveting a six-burner Wolf and a $14,000 Sub-Zero. In promos, the announcer—her voice warm and firm, Oprah-atic—calls it "a network for Food People, by Food People," which is a passably discreet way of flattering viewers who might blanch at the lameness of publicly labeling themselves as "foodies."
To call the Cooking Channel edgy overstates the case, naturally, despite the existence of Food Jammers, wherein three shaggy DIY dudes shuttle between the kitchen and the workshop while inventing taco vending machines and retooling a car jack into a pasta maker. Because the network needs to fill a day's schedule on a tight budget, it recycles some programs ranging from contemporary classics (Iron Chef Japan) to renowned nuisances (Emeril Live). Here again is Jamie Oliver, who, with Jamie at Home, has transcended food porn and advanced to food erotica; accompanying the succulent visuals are sounds of mincing and whisking so delicious that the sound engineers deserve an Emmy. On the other hand, because the Cooking Channel has imported so many of its shows from elsewhere, it boasts a worldly feel, not unlike the international aisle at Safeway.
Chuck's Day Off, a likely cult favorite, is the work of Chuck Hughes, who runs a happening Montreal restaurant called Garde Manger and who, being a zesty host and total flirt, wields a mercilessly charismatic screen presence. Each episode finds him kicking it at his restaurant while off the clock, so passionate about keeping the party going that he simply must do up some roast halibut for his fishmonger or a stove-top clambake for his tattoo artist. In last night's episode—"Grazing, Gabby Girls"—he initially came on too strong when announcing that he'd be preparing a meal for a "tasting group" of female regulars. He wore a black V-neck shirt, snug at his fine pecs and clinging to his gourmand's spare tire. He was celebrating the dinner before it had begun: "Who doesn't love girls?" Misogynists, one supposes, and also those who aver that all girls have cooties. Circle, circle; dot, dot.
Yet there was no immunizing oneself against Chuck's style as he whipped up some tapas for an intimate extravaganza, complete with Kir Royales. True, his spicy melon and Serrano ham was a bit busy, what with the coriander and anise, and he was just a dollop too lascivious when saying, "I'm also gonna pickle my melon," but still it was Serrano. He continued to tease the salivary glands with his pan-grilled scallops and with a deep-fried honey-glazed manchego situation on which the girls coyly nibbled. I like his style, but I must offer an advisory to those who would try to duplicate Chuck's "roasted rock-salt shrimp": Disregard his terminology. You specifically want prawns. Also, you want to use kosher salt—or, even better, coarse-grained sea salt—unless you will be using those prawns to de-ice the driveway.
My counsel regarding Everyday Exotic, Chuck's lead-in, is to approach it as comedy, especially when host Roger Mooking is dishing up the opening sequence. Singing his own theme song—Trinidadian ska on the hip-hop tip—Mooking uses journey as an internal rhyme for never lonely: "Let's go on a journey, never lonely when we trust." The song seems meant to steel viewers for the culinary equivalent of Reading Rainbow. The show poses the question of how far you should trust a man eager to instruct his audience in the grotesque bastardization of macaroni and cheese.
To be fair, Mooking frequently reimagines spicy classics in ways that seem reasonably yummy. I would not kick his lamb kebabs off my table. He dispenses good tips here and there, for instance recommending that, when sautéing, you add some vegetable oil to your butter to raise its smoking point, which obviously beats the hell out of clarifying the shit. Last night, however, the curried mac and cheese was hilarious. Dismissing cheddar as overly sharp and insufficiently gooey, he used provolone in the béchamel. He laid bread crumbs atop the pasta, asparagus atop the bread crumbs, and more provolone atop the asparagus. He baked it all in a dish of that Fiestaware-ish light-green shade that clashes horribly with green vegetables. "If you want to take this a couple steps up, you can add some tuna," he said. One can only wonder: A couple steps where? And exactly what awful things happen when we arrive?
Separate question: What would a lifestyle network be without a brand-defining personality? The network seems to be pitching Canada's Laura Calder, the host of French Food at Home, as its marquee star. She might be its answer to Nigella Lawson. Don't mistake me, Nigella also turns up here, voluptuous and voluptuary as ever, but Calder, with her Laura Linney looks and cashmere-yoga-pants vibe, is a different sort of person. Whereas the established star naughtily confides that she wants to keep all of her chocolate-caramel crispy cakes to herself, the emerging one, down to earth and sporadically goofy, has different ideas about luxury. Her idea of decadence is to spend an extravagant amount of time making a souffled spinach omelet. While Nigella calls herself a "domestic goddess," Calder is a favored mortal, she seems to be a peer presenting a fantasy well within reach.