These days, it can seem like every chef has their own television show. From the smallest public television station to huge networks devoted to food, TV chefs occupy an inordinately large portion of the airwaves. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Long before Emeril Lagasse and even Julia Child, folks were learning the ins and outs of cuisine from their televisions.
The distinction of the very first cook to have his own television show goes to Philip Harben, a self-taught cook whose main kitchen experience came from running a restaurant in a residential club for young professionals in London (novelist Agatha Christie was one of Harben’s clients there). During WWII, Harben cooked for the Royal Air Force. Once he got out, he did radio cooking shows for the BBC until 1946, when his first cooking show aired. Entitled “Cookery,” the program was just 10 minutes long. The very first dish cooked on TV? Lobster vol-au-vents. His program aired for years in different formats, and he was unquestionably Britain’s most famous cook for the next 10 years. As food rationing laws were still in effect for most of that time, sometimes it could be difficult to get hold of ingredients like sugar and meat; Harben often resorted to bringing in shares from his own allotments of rations to cook on the show.
As Harben’s tenure on the airwaves came to a close, a new, more glamorous figure appeared on UK sets. Fanny Cradock was a rare character: self-proclaimed psychic, married four times (twice bigamously), and living in poverty selling cleaning products door to door until she discovered the works of influential French chef Auguste Escoffier. She began cooking in earnest, working in restaurants and throwing elaborate dinner parties with her partner and paramour Johnnie Cradock. Her kitchen talents came naturally, Cradock insisted, because she had been a chef in a previous life. She began writing a cooking column called “Bon Viveur” in The Daily Telegraph in 1950, and by 1955 she had her own show, “Chez Bon Viveur.”
Chez Bon Viveur was enormously influential in the UK, and Cradock was indisputably the first person to wear the title of “celebrity chef.” After the slim years of the post war period, Britons were ready for some glamour, and the kooky Ms. Cradock delivered in spades. She gave all her dishes French names (including the ones that were unquestionably English in nature, like Yorkshire pudding). She had a deep love of vegetable-based food dyes, and once colored a pot of scalloped potatoes green to match the rest of the dinner. With recipes for rose petal jam and baked hedgehog, Cradock introduced a generation of cooks to exotic ingredients.
In the United States, another gourmand was about to make his mark on the airwaves. James Beard is known now as a cookbook author, bon vivant and for the yearly chef award that bears his name. But he was also the very first American chef to cook on television. In 1946, a few months after Harben’s premiere, Beard first appeared on air in “I Love to Eat.” Sponsored by Borden Foods, it was a live show, just 15 minutes long, which aired on Fridays right after an instructional dance show and before boxing from Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, since the show only lasted for a couple years, little is known about it—the technology to record live shows didn’t exist until 1947.
More is known about the second show to appear on U.S. airwaves. In 1947, chef and restaurateur Dione Lucas began her own program, “To The Queen’s Taste.” It ran on a local New York City station for two years. Lucas cooked decidedly French food (omelettes were her specialty) and even had guests like Salvador Dali appear on her show. But those early years of cooking TV were far from polished. In one of her more memorable episodes, Lucas attempted to demonstrate a chocolate soufflé for her audience. She prepared the batter and then took a fresh, already made soufflé out of the oven to show off her creation. Unfortunately, an unwitting electrician had unplugged the oven on set, and the soufflé was stone cold. Lucas was unable to do anything except continue to chat about the soufflé’s glamorous appearance, as chocolate and egg whites dissolved into a puddle before the astonished eyes of her guests.