One of my pet peeves about most cooking shows is how often a program's uber-foodies -- from the four-star guys in the starchy aprons to the home cooks who've lucked into a spot on television -- are reluctant to express any real emotion about how much they love the actual taste of good food.
Show us some serious food love, the kind of passion that comes out in oos and ahs. That makes them coo. That overcomes them with orgasmic ecstasy.
I had given up all hope of finding that one show where the chefs would let down their smug guard and come out giggling in delight over the food they were either making or tasting. And then I started watching The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Ah ha. So that's where all the extroverted, expressive chefs have been hiding out.
Each week, this Food Network program convenes a collection of network stars and gets them to reveal the ultimate eat they've enjoyed somewhere in these United States. The theme for the most recent show - "sauced dishes" -- seemed to elicit an especially lengthy string of hyperbolic descriptions amid various states of swooning.
The "sauced" episode's lineup was quite eclectic and numerous: Ted Allen (Chopped host); Aaron Sanchez, also a Chopped judge and chef at Centrico in New York; Claire Robinson, chef-host of 5-Ingredient Fix; Cat Cora from Iron Chef (her name always makes me think of some '70s era World Wrestling Federation combatant wearing too much mascara); Alex Guarnaschelli of Chopped and executive chef at New York's Butter, Michael Psilakis, Ultimate Recipe Showdown judge and chef-owner of Kefi (you guessed it, in New York); Michael Chiarello, chef owner of Bottega in Yountville, California (same home town as the stratospherically excellent French Laundry); and finally Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes and owner of Charm City Cakes in my home-state of Maryland.
With only 30-minutes to work with, and eight celebri-chefs chirping on about their favorite sauced item, that makes The Best Thing I Ever Ate one of the best viewing values for the minute-of-attention-span-expended.
The sauced segment seemed to bring out not only some of the most enthused reviews for the food sampled, but also managed to get many of the chefs away from the default favored spots mostly located in New York, Chicago or L.A. Instead, Sanchez was smacking his lips over the barbecue pork rib tips he sampled at Daddy D'z in Atlanta. Robinson couldn't get enough of the sticky toffee pudding with the bourbon ice cream of Colt & Gray in Denver. Cora swore by something called a Comeback Sauce (oh, meaning that you'll "come back" for more) served at the Mayflower Café in Jackson, Mississippi. And while Guarnaschelli was waxing poetic about a hanger steak sitting in a pool of agro dolce sauce at Fig in Charleston, South Carolina, Goldman couldn't stop being a cheerleader for Baltimore's Ambassador Dining Room and its goa fish with tamarind sauce.
The real fun of The Best Thing I Ever Ate is when you see each of these chefs try to put into words just the kind of ecstasy each of their favorite dishes inspires. Though the praise may get a bit trite, and the descriptions a bit mundane (it does renew my admiration for the truly well-crafted restaurant review -- Sam Sifton are you listening?), these celebrity cooks do serve their encomiums as sincerely as they can.
Once in a while, as on the sauced episode, the chefs do reach extra deep into their adjectival goody bag to come up with some truly inspired descriptives. Allen worships Scott Conant of New York's Scarpetta as some kind of "tomato whisperer" -- how else to explain his exceptional spaghetti al pomodoro. Sanchez goes school yard with his claim of the "butt kicking" quality of those barbeue pork rib tips. Robinson all but leaps out of the tube to admonish every viewer within driving, jogging or hitch-hiking distance of Denver's Colt & Gray to head there pronto for its sticky toffee pudding.
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But the chef who takes the Frank Bruni trophy for most apt metaphors in a single breath to describe her Best Thing is clearly Guarnaschelli. In appraising Fig's hanger steak, Guarnaschelli gets breathless: The taste is "like a giant pinball of flavor" bouncing in your mouth. At one point, she claims that the steak's combination of brightness and acidity is so dazzling it mutes out the rest of the world.
It leaves Alex momentarily in her little private habitat of food pleasure that, thankfully, she tries to put into words so we can join her there.
(New episodes of The Best Thing I Ever Ate air on the Food Network, 9:30 p.m. Mondays.)