Canada's Answer to Julia Child? "Mais non" (Not)
Whether it's intended or not really doesn't matter: The minute a cooking program dubs itself French Food at Home and offers up a chef trying to be as understated, quirkily charming, yet educational as, yes, la grande dame d'American French cooking -- Julia Child -- it's setting itself up for failure.
Because even such an outwardly inoffensive and skilled chef as Laura Calder, the host in charge of all that French Food at Home, can't win in even the most indirect comparison with the deity known as Julia.
And yet, Cooking Channel delivers us another Canadian culinary export (this one coming courtesy of a tax credit from the Nova Scotia Film Industry) in French Food at Home. It's perfectly fine, professional and competently delivered. And that's part of its problem. Nothing about it really sparkles. Nothing pushes the parchment paper envelope. In fact, it almost reeks of prudish propriety and bland civility.
Calder is a suitable hostess but she seems determined to be instantly forgettable. Her little stabs at nicely pronounced French terms (the way she stretches out the syllables when uttering the "moelleux au chocolat" a.k.a. chocolate cake with a gooey center) come across as slightly pedantic, as if she were leading Quebec's linguistic separatist movement.
Calder's telegenic appeal is almost laughably Victorian in its reserve. She would have been perfectly cast on a 1977 episode of the starchy The Forsyte Saga. I'm sorry, but I must confess that a good 50 percent of why I tune into Giada De Laurentiis or, heaven help me, Nigella Lawson, is to enjoy (OK, ogle) their pulchritude as much as their deft way with pasta. But let's recap: These chefs are on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel because they have pizazz that lights up your cathode ray tube while stoking your gastronomic id.
The only stoking Calder does is with her gas stove. It's only about her cooking and, sadly, in this ADHD age, this 500-channels-and-nothin's-on universe, that's not enough.
A recent menu Calder offered wandered over the line from simple to simplistic. Though her first item, the aforementioned moelleux au chocolat, was beyond reproach, her beef au bleu (or sirloin cooked to a perfect medium rare) was slathered with the kind of two-ingredient blue cheese sauce that Julia would surely have scoffed at and Olive Garden might have used.
Her sautéed endive with orange supreme segments was one of the few dishes Calder turned out that struck that vital, elusive balance between agro (vinegary) and dolce (sweet). And when she threw in the third element of fat courtesy of a big chunk of butter, she did arrive at an unexpectedly perfect trinity of taste.
Unlike Jamie Oliver, a true master of refined rustic cooking -- let alone one of the most infectious and endearing cooking TV screen types to come along in years -- Calder's overall approach is heavy on the rustic, light on the sophistication.
It was when Calder produced a perfectly respectable, if unspectacular, spaghetti dish involving an abundance of fresh herbs (mint especially) plucked from her garden, along with a mix of food-processed nuts, that I began wracking my brain to recall the underlying theme to this episode. Eventually it hit me: Artist Dinner.
Maybe that was Calder's attempt at being ironic, as when she struggled mightily to draw some meek allusion to Picasso's Blue Period and her own blue cheese sauce (it's embarrassing just writing that). I couldn't help conclude that the only artfulness on this program is how Calder manipulates the time-space continuum in order to stretch out the thinnest of premises for a full 30-minutes.
(French Food at Home airs on the Cooking Channel 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.)
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