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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Worst Cooks in America?"

Okay, I gotta ask; “Where do they get these people??!!”

I'm talking about Food Network's “Worst Cooks in America.” In case you're not familiar with the show, a couple of pro chefs – this season it's Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine – gather a group of sixteen people who, from all indications, have trouble boiling water and split them up into two teams. Anne takes eight and Robert takes eight and the culinary mayhem begins as they attempt to turn “kitchen zeroes into kitchen heroes.” At the end of the ordeal, two contestants will theoretically have learned enough to prepare a restaurant quality meal for a panel of judges. The one who makes the best meal is the winner.

This is the program's second season. When it debuted last year, it was suggested that perhaps there were some ringers in the mix who just wanted their fifteen minutes of fame. But the producers insisted that these folks were for real. Attempts to conceal knife skills and other talents would be easy to spot, they said. We were assured that the show is on the up and up.

So I ask again, “Where do they get these people??!!

I literally cringed my way through the season premiere the other night. Now, I'm probably not the best one to comment on the whole “can't cook” situation. There were already two generations of restaurant cooks and chefs perched in my family tree when I started cooking at age seven. Most of the relatives who weren't pros were exceptional home cooks. I learned early and I learned from the best.

So when a contestant presented her “skill drill” dish to the chefs and it turned out to be a “quesidilla” made of squeeze cheese over bologna and crackers on a tortilla, I was incredulous. I mean, my kid was making spice cakes from scratch when he was ten, and here's a twenty-seven year-old woman putting canned cheese on bologna and crackers?

Watching the chicken butchery was painful. Okay, it's not something every casual cook can do, but I thought pretty much every human being knew which side of the bird the breasts were on. (I'll give you a hint lady: they're on the same side as yours are. The front!!)

And I have to admit after more than a half-century of life that I have never heard chicken breasts called “boobs” before. At least that contestant – a former model -- was on the right track.

Then there was the woman who invented the culinary equivalent of mustard gas by throwing her chicken into a bone dry pan, dumping about a pound of cayenne pepper on it, and cranking up the fire until everybody in the room was coughing and gagging from the fumes. Her rationale was, “If I add a lot of flavor, it might cover up the fact that I don't know what I'm doing.”

Two people working side by side took the opposite extreme and put so much oil in their pans that they managed to set them on fire one right after the other.

Another woman tried sauteing her vegetables in about a quart of oil. “I never know how much to use.” Needless to say, the dish was not a success.

Robert asked one guy if he was cremating his food just for fun.

I nearly choked when I saw the woman attempting a quiche into which she dumped a literal handful of whole black peppercorns.

I felt sorry for the husband of the woman who admitted that in twenty-seven years of marriage, she hadn't cooked twenty-seven meals. She also talked about how her food “taste-ez.” Not how it “tastes” but how it “taste-ez.” However, since she is a teacher maybe I've been saying it wrong all these years.

The same woman chased her salmon all over the pan with a spatula while crying, “Turn! Turn!” It's okay, honey. I haven't taught my food to turn over on command either. When Robert refused to taste the blackened results, her advice to him was, “Turn it over and get some from the bottom.”

Speaking of turning, one fellow tried an advanced technique. He was attempting to flip whatever he was cooking by putting a plate over the top of the pan and then turning the pan over onto the plate. Good technique. I've done it from time to time. But I also know what a pot holder is. He didn't. Ooops! Little hot there, buddy?

Then there was the darling of the Centers for Disease Control who shocked Anne – and anybody else with half a brain – by thoroughly fondling his raw chicken and then moving right along to handling everything else in sight without having washed his hands!

My absolute favorite moment was watching Robert's face as he observed one member of his team pulling a chicken apart with his hands because he said it was easier for him than using a knife.

The unsuccessful auditioner who left the imprint of a steam iron burned into an attempt at grilled cheese. The guy who had no idea how to tell if his chicken was done. (It wasn't.) The woman who spent several minutes examining a pepper mill trying to figure out how to use it. Okay, it's fun to laugh at all this, but it's sad, too. One contestant admitted that her kids eat peanut butter and jelly nearly every night because she can't cook. Another, the former model, lamented her weight gain and blamed it on her inability to prepare anything other than junk food.

And there were a few personal triumphs. One woman, a vegetarian, had never even touched a chicken before, much less cut one up. Not only did she do it, she did it pretty well.

I realize it takes a great deal of courage to admit to your shortcomings and then stand up and display them before a national audience. For that, all these people are to be admired. They are to be applauded, too, for their desire to improve themselves.

But I'm still left with the question I started out with. And I'm still truly seeking the answer. I'm not trying to be a smart-ass. I'm really not. As one who has never faced the problem, I am honestly perplexed by it. I struggle because I can't put myself in their shoes and I can't comprehend people who are unable to do something that comes to me as naturally as breathing.

I understand that not everybody went to culinary school. I know that not everybody studies food and cooking the way I do. My coffee table is littered with copies of Cook's Illustrated and La Cucina Italiana, there are dozens of cookbooks in my kitchen, and there's a 300 page textbook from the Culinary Institute of America on my nightstand.

But cooking is a basic skill. You learn to walk, you learn to talk, you learn to read, you learn to write, you learn to cook. So how did it happen that these sixteen people – among them a teacher, two nurses, an engineer, a speech pathologist, and a guy pursuing his PhD – managed to skip such an essential step in their basic education? Since eating closely follows breathing on the list of things you have to do in order to stay alive, it would seem to me that cooking should be the next thing on the list. And yet there they are. And thousands more like them.

I mean, there's “cooking” and then there's “COOKING,” you know? These days, I can turn out an eight course Italian meal from scratch without a second thought. But there was a lot of Minute Rice and brown 'n serve rolls on the menu forty years ago. You learn as you go. But if you don't even go, how are you ever going to learn?

I hope these sixteen “Worst Cooks in America” are inspired by the experience to become, if not the best cooks in America, better cooks, at the very least. Moreover, I hope that the thousands like them in the viewing audience will also be similarly inspired. Even if they never achieve professional proficiency, mastery of box mixes and canned products would be a big improvement over squeeze cheese on bologna and crackers.

I've been tooting the trumpet for years: Everybody should know how to cook. Stop feeding your kids a steady diet of fast food. Show 'em what real food is and where it comes from. Don't pamper them by cooking everything yourself. Make them help. You held out your arms to them when they took those first wobbly steps toward self-sufficiency. Now guide those steps into the kitchen. Demand that cooking and home economics courses be ramped up in your schools. And drag the boys into them, kicking and screaming if necessary. If you consider yourself to be like one of the sixteen and you can't get Robert Irvine or Anne Burrell to give you cooking lessons, get them on your own. If nothing else, watch cooking shows on TV and hang out with friends and relatives who can cook. You'll be amazed at what you can learn by watching.

There should be no “worst” cooks in America. There's no reason or excuse for it. There should only be good cooks and better cooks. Not good for television, maybe, but better for society.

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