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The joy of cooking -- what a concept! -- on PBS

March 5, 2009 |  7:46 pm

PBS's top chefs 

Set the Ti-Vo!

“A Moveable Feast with America’s Favorite Chefs” premieres Saturday at 11 a.m. on KCET as part of a pledge drive. I know what you're thinking. Oh joy.

But consider giving it a shot.

Not only will you see some of public television's biggest names in food all sharing the same stage –- Ming Tsai of “Simply Ming,” Ruth Reichl of “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie,” Lidia Bastianich of “Lidia’s Italy,” Rick Bayless of “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” Jose Andres of “Made In Spain” and Christopher Kimball of “America’s Test Kitchen.”

But you’ll also find yourself falling in love all over again with the cooking show.

In a television universe that seems convinced that we need Drama! Competition! Humiliation! Eliminations! served up with our food TV, “A Moveable Feast with America’s Favorite Chefs” reminds us how delicious it is to simply train a camera on an expert in a kitchen setting -- and let passion run its course.

Tsai makes a simple ginger syrup for a Golden Ginger Thaihito and a ginger margarita. Reichl serves appetizers, including what she bills as the "the greatest grilled cheese sandwich ever." (She turns it into bite-sized appetizers. Appetizers! Genius!) Bastianich makes a no-cook pesto sauce that is so quick it's done in the time it takes to cook the spaghetti -- and she shows you how to make a “nest” as you plate your pasta. Bayless serves up chicken enchiladas with a green sauce that will make you think of spring. Christopher Kimball puts a twist on the apple pie.

But, if nothing else, you absolutely have to watch Jose Andres make salt-encrusted pork tenderloin.

It’s no secret that Andres is one of the most exuberant and gregarious men on the planet. (You would be too if you had his charmed life.) But he’s so full of life and enthusiasm as he makes this wildly simple dish that it’s a delight just to watch the camera try to contain it all.

Want the recipes? Then you'll have to pledge.

The construct of the show is pretty straightforward: PBS’ marquee names put on a progressive dinner –- that is, each prepares a particular dish, and then they all get together at the end to try each other's cooking. It’s kinda like the world’s greatest potluck.

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the show was a feat of engineering: It took months to schedule, said Laurie Donnelly, executive producer of WGBH’s lifestyle programming and the architect behind PBS’ aggressive push into food programming. “There were times when we thought it was never going to happen –- these are people who are going in a million different directions.”

There were also questions about whether it would work even if you could get them all under one roof. It seemed like a solid bet –- but these were celebrities who did not all know each other. What if the chemistry was off?

Well, there was no reason to worry.

“It was like magic,” Donnelly said. And if you think that sounds like PR puffery, just watch the first few moments as the inimitable Bastianich seizes the reins -- "This is a rare occasion, a rare opportunity to get these characters together" -- and gets the show on its way.

Tsai, host of “Simply Ming,” said the format was a welcome break from the traditional. “We’re all on public television, but we’re segmented, we never get to leverage off each other.” Remarkably, he said, no one tried to dominate. “That’s a rarity if you think about it. No one had a chip on their shoulder, no one had to prove anything or show up anyone else. There was great synergy. [I think that’s because] we’re all very proud to be on public television. There is no network that has more chefs right now.”

Tsai said one of the biggest revelations of the day was getting to know Ruth Reichl. “She’s funny! Do people know that?”

For her part, Reichl said it was an honor just to be invited. “I don’t really think of myself as a TV chef. When [Donnelly] said she wanted me to come up to Boston and spend the day shooting, I said: You sure you want me?”

Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and executive producer of “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie,” said she hopes the show helps with fundraising –- “these days, every public institution needs all the help it can get, of course” -- but added that she has loftier aspirations as well.

“I hope it will really encourage people to stay at home and cook. I hope it gives them the notion that entertaining is easy,” she said. “Somehow, people were made to believe that cooking is difficult. Cooking is our most natural activity. We're cooking animals.”

Now that this band of foodies hit it off, what’s next?

Donnelly was keeping mum. “Let’s just say it’s opened the door to the possibility of working together again.”

Watch “Moveable Feast” -- I know, I know, the pledge part will be annoying -- and then let me know what you think.

Did I oversell it?

-- Rene Lynch

Photo credit: PBS

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