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In her sophomore year of college, Melissa d’Arabian studied abroad in France, living with a host couple in a town in the Loire Valley. Madame Gabillet cooked dinner every night, and a frequent dish was seared chicken with pan sauce. “She was not very extroverted,” d’Arabian recalls. “A little bit timid.” But as she watched her host cook with confidence in an everyday kind of way, d’Arabian, now 53 and a cookbook author, began to understand that the chicken was not so much a recipe as it was a strong technique. It was, she surmised, “real French cooking.”
Years later, in 2009, I was sitting on my parents’ couch in Atlanta the night d’Arabian cooked a dish on television inspired by Madame Gabillet’s chicken, which earned her the Season 5 crown on “The Next Food Network Star.” I was 18 and counting down the days until I might get to deglaze a pan on TV (and say the word “deglaze”) while competing for a shot at my own show. But what was my culinary point of view? Who was “Eric” on a plate? When I wasn’t baking box-mix cakes, I was practicing my presentation skills in front of the bathroom mirror.
It took several years for me to recognize the impact that those TV shows had on my life, on my palate and, most of all, on my cooking. “Food Network opened the doorway,” d’Arabian says, “and made it wider for people to come into the kitchen.” And I came swinging through, dusted in flour. I even worked there years ago, though it was in the editorial department of the website — my first food job out of college.
So many of the instincts I possess now as a cook can be credited to shows that ran in the late 1990s and early aughts. And there were other kids like me. We were Food Network Babies, a generation who came home from school to watch cooking programs before dinnertime. But if I found my after-school culinary tutors in Emeril Lagasse, Tyler Florence and Rachael Ray, then late-night episodes of “Unwrapped” and “$40 a Day” were my ritual before bed. By 13, I was lighting baked alaskas on fire because I had seen Gale Gand do it on “Sweet Dreams.” (I can still hear her closing tagline: “And remember, there’s always room for dessert.”)
Food Network Babies were scattered across the nation. Thy Ho-Pham, a 32-year-old community health and wellness manager in Houston, says hosts like Giada De Laurentiis taught her to cook beyond her parents’ Vietnamese food when she was a kid in New Orleans. But “Iron Chef” was the show that hooked her. One episode of the English-dubbed Japanese competition show made her realize that people ate squid beyond her immigrant family. “Squid was glamorized as a delicacy,” she says, “whereas I remember my school friends making disgusted faces when I shared with them that I eat squid.”
It took several years for me to recognize the impact on my life, on my palate and, most of all, on my cooking.
Andrea Solorzano, who is now a software developer, was a 12-year-old in Houston when she watched a late-night episode of “Good Eats” in which Alton Brown walked through the science of making a perfect omelet. The next morning, Solorzano made an omelet for her mother, using everything she learned the night before — her first attempt at cooking. Growing up in Los Angeles, Maximilíano Durón loved watching Sunny Anderson because, he says, at the time she was one of the only people of color who had a show midafternoon. “Her interstate chili was one of the first recipes I ever tried to make myself,” says Durón, an editor at ARTnews, “and it really taught me how to build flavor.” A complexly spiced chuck-and-chorizo chili, the recipe calls for 26 ingredients. Durón asked for a Dutch oven that Christmas.
When I watch those shows now, they remind me of how much slower cooking programs used to be, the antithesis of the flashy antics of today’s YouTube videos or the accelerated ephemera of TikTok. A host would walk to the pantry, take out an onion, cut the onion and peel the onion, all in real time with minimal cuts; today’s food videos and TV programs edit all that out. D’Arabian says she is nostalgic for the old kind of cooking show, which was about teaching the audience to cook. “The information is sort of still out there,” she says. “What it’s not is a relaxing, paced, 22-minute show on a network.”
For those moments when you want to slow down, Madame Gabillet’s chicken is a good place to start. I made it for the first time after watching d’Arabian’s big “Food Network Star” win years ago, but it was the day I swapped the chicken breast for trout, the lemons for limes and the combination of white wine and chicken broth for all white wine that I realized the power of this pan sauce. Culinarily, it set me free.
D’Arabian likes to joke that Madame Gabillet’s chicken is less about the chicken and more about the process. It’s true that you can use any protein. It could be tofu or a piece of fish, or you could use a vegetable — something that benefits from the hard sear of a dry skillet, like brussels sprouts. Ivory scallops gain an almost butterscotch-like crust when they are seared in a hot pan, tasting like the sea slicked in burned sugar.
The next bit is crucial, and the most satisfying, not least because I get to say the word “deglaze”: Deglaze the pan. Splash in some liquid and scrape up the browned bits stuck on the bottom. Boil the liquid until it reduces, then, off the heat, stir in cold butter to create a velvety emulsion — a pan sauce with verve, and real cooking, too.
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.