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‘Great Chefs’ Is Amazon Prime’s Best Kept Culinary Secret

Streaming recommendations and a round-up of last week’s food-related entertainment news

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Great Chefs/Amazon Prime

This post originally appeared on July 12, 2019, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at all the big food shows that are returning and debuting later this month. But today, I’ve got a nostalgic tour of a classic from the vaults, plus a round-up of the week’s food-related entertainment news. Here are some ideas for what to watch this weekend:

A time warp back to the sun-dried tomato years of American fine dining

Great Chefs/Amazon Prime

Watching Great Chefs, a series that ran on PBS and the Discovery Channel in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard not to think about how much food TV has changed over the last three decades.

There are no witty asides from the chef, flashy infographics, or cinematic montages, just celebrated chefs from a bygone era cooking signature dishes in their restaurants alone, oftentimes with little in the way of narration or commentary. After discovering that much of this series was available to stream for free on Amazon Prime, I spent several hours last weekend falling down a raspberry vinaigrette-scented rabbit hole. If you’re looking for a lo-fi food show too chill out to this summer — maybe as you cook, perhaps as you scroll through Instagram — this is a great series to take for a spin.

I never watched Great Chefs during its original run, but the name has come up a number of times over the years during interviews with chefs who might identify as members of Generation X (Roy Choi recently mentioned that his excellent new project the Chef Show was inspired by the old school “cooking-to-camera” series). The recipes are almost astoundingly complicated by today’s food TV standards — no shortcuts or food hacks here. Each episode is structured as a progression of dishes from appetizers to entrees to desserts, with a different chef cooking each course. And while the plating of some of these creations seems almost comically retro — the salads are TALL, the desserts are CURLY — it’s a lot of fun to see the little tricks that these chefs use to construct their edible masterpieces.

Many chefs who are still famous today — like Bobby Flay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, and Daniel Boulud — filmed multiple segments for Great Chefs over the years. But the series is also a treasure trove of videos starring influential chefs who have since hung up their aprons or, in some cases, passed away. With that in mind, here are some of the personalities who I was most delighted to see in the Great Chefs archives, with links to where you can find their segments:

Great Chefs/Amazon Prime

During his appearance on Great Chefs of the East, Patrick Clark, a New American pioneer and one of the first black celebrity chefs, makes a decadent entree from his menu at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington D.C.: a veal t-bone with oven-dried tomatoes, braised fennel, and mushrooms. Elsewhere across the Great Chefs library, Clark can also be found cooking equally hearty dishes like rack of lamb with ratatouille polenta and pan-seared beef filet with blue cheese ravioli. Sadly, after two decades cooking at legendary restaurants like the Odeon and Tavern on the Green, Clark died of heart failure in 1998.

By reimagining nostalgic treats for a fine dining setting at Gramercy Tavern, Claudia Fleming inspired a generation of pastry chefs. And in this Great Chefs segment, you can see her making a decadent dish that, like many of her creations, involves a lot of technique: a gorgeous soufflé tart, with a filling made of pastry cream and Italian meringue. These days, Fleming runs the Northfork Table & Inn on Long Island and its food truck spinoff, both of which she opened over a decade ago with her husband, the late chef Gerry Hayden.

In Season 2 of Great Chefs — Great Cities, Jeremiah Tower, one of the chief architects of California cuisine, prepares a ballottine of braised poultry in the kitchen of the long-defunct Stars Oakville Cafe in Napa Valley. Tower adopts an exacting, almost stern tone as he explains how to fold the chicken thighs, duck meat, and salted foie gras inside poached savoy cabbage leaves, before braising the bundles in stock. This luxurious dish would still kill in 2019.

Great Chefs/Amazon Prime

In the kitchen of her celebrated Manhattan restaurant Zarela, chef/author Zarela Martinez makes poblanos rellenos for the Great Chefs of the East cameras. First she fries the peppers and peels their skins, and then fills them with a mixture of chicken, dried apricots, olives, and prunes. Martinez, who helped popularize regional Mexican cuisine in NYC, closed her flagship restaurant in 2011. Her son, Chopped judge Aaron Sanchez, is arguably the most famous chef in the family these days.

In another Great Chefs of the East segment, André Soltner — who cooked for celebrities and socialites at long-shuttered Manhattan French institution Lutèce — makes an Alsatian pie stuffed with bacon, sliced potatoes, hard boiled eggs, parsley, and crème fraîche. This majestic pastry was actually an off-the-menu special that Soltner made for a loyal customer who asked him to prepare a dish from his youth. It’s mesmerizing to watch the chef — who still serves as the dean of classical studies at the French Culinary Institute — make little scales in the top of the dough with flicks of his knife.

Japanese-American chef Roy Yamaguchi cold-smokes striped marlin in his Great Chefs — Great Cities demonstration. He then slices the fish into ribbons and drapes them atop a lightly dressed seaweed salad along with a stack of julienned vegetables. It’s hard to imagine this vertically inclined, technicolor vegetable-and-seafood fantasia landing on any trendy menu nowadays, but watching the preparation gives you a good sense of Yamaguchi’s flair for marrying Hawaiian ingredients with European and Japanese cooking styles.

Great Chefs/Amazon Video

Before they were the Too Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken demonstrated how to make fresh corn tamales in the cramped kitchen of Border Grill on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. It’s clear from this Great Chefs of the West segment that these two — who still run restaurants together nearly 40 years after launching their first — have terrific chemistry in the kitchen and are naturals in front of the camera. And if you’re searching for a Summer 2019 style inspiration, look no further than the Border Grill duo in the late ’80s.

Like many food TV shows of the era, Great Chefs is regrettably top-loaded with white men cooking in a fine dining style. But the catalog also contains hours of footage of the women and people of color who changed the face of food in America. My suggestion is to surf around until you find a chef that piques your interest and work through the rest of that episode before scanning for another favorite.

You can find several different iterations of the show — including Great Chefs of America, Great Chefs — Great Cities, Great Chefs of the West, Great Chefs of the East, and Great Chefs of the South — on Amazon Prime Video.

In other entertainment news…

If you want a Great Chefs-inspired cooking challenge, perhaps consider making Claudia Fleming’s peach-blueberry cobbler using this recipe.