Thanks to the foodie culture craze, the landscape is populated with molecular gastronomists, gastropubs and now gastrologues, the new moniker for foodie travelogues. The newest cook to throw his toque into that ring is Mark Bittman, whose latest series, “The Best Recipes in the World With Mark Bittman,” premiered on PBS Monday night.
Offscreen, the curmudgeonly Bittman has made a name for himself with 1998’s “How to Cook Everything” (a second edition is coming out soon) and writing “The Minimalist” column for The New York Times. Now, “Best Recipes,” his second TV stint, follows the journalist on adventures that include making seafood paella at a hole-in-the-wall in Valencia, Spain, and touring London’s famed Smithfield Market for meat.
The “follow me as I discover local culinary treasures” trail is one that’s been trod by such personalities as Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations”), Giada de Laurentiis (“Giada’s Weekend Getaways”) and even Rachael Ray, who explores a city on “$40 a Day.” But Bittman, of course, insists he will be delivering something new to a hungry audience. “I know Tony Bourdain and we’re not very much like each other except we’re both tall. His attitude is different from my attitude,” he says, sitting in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “It’s like saying to two novelists, ‘Oh, you’re both writing about marriage. How come?’ It’s because they have different approaches.”
Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if, these days, the only way to commercial success as a chef is to get on television. (It was recently reported the very visible de Laurentiis may be up for a position hosting the fourth hour of “Today.”) Bittman explains: “It’s not a question of becoming more successful; it’s a question of doing things that are interesting.” And over the course of taping, he’s become more at ease seeing himself on-screen. “I’m more comfortable with myself as a talent or an actor,” he says. “But I sort of use ‘talent’ ironically.”
Even so, it seems he’s caught the bug. Bittman’s already begun scouting locations for his next program, a 26-part PBS series on Spain that will be cohosted by Italian chef Mario Batali and an unnamed Hollywood star. He’s also thinking of pitching a new show “that’s completely unrelated” to the Food Network.
This story first appeared in the April 12, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Lately, Bittman’s extracurricular work has been eclipsed by the remarkable aftermath to a piece he published in the Times about Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey and his “no-knead bread.” The story and its accompanying recipe were syndicated across the country and the new cooking method so ignited the blogosphere that other newspapers wrote follow-up stories. Headlines read: “How New Recipe May Be the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread,” “No-Knead Bread Fires Up Bakers” and “How to Make the Bread Everyone’s Talking About.”
“The reaction was amazing. A million people are interested in food; when I was young, it was 5,000,” Bittman says. “That piece was number one on the ‘Most e-mailed’ list for a week. That’s never happened with a food story. But I’d be much happier if I could teach these people how to make vegetable soup.”