It says something about America, no doubt, that we’ve reached a point where eating food is no longer enough—we now must be entertained by it. And boy, are we ever. In the past 10 years, more than ever before, food-related programming loomed large (on cable, in particular) and during the same decade that bid goodbye to Julia Child—a pioneer of so many things, including food TV—we welcomed the shiny young faces of Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and more into our homes.
But in much the same way that the past 10 years have ushered in a Golden Age of Television, so too has it seen a shift in the quality of food TV. There’s still a place for the friendly host walking us through all manner of chopping and poaching on camera in a faux-homey studio kitchen, but this decade’s best food programming has plied our species’ basic need for sustenance with our culture’s love of competition and thirst for voyeurism into shows that are suspenseful, hilarious, challenging, maddening, and stomach-rumble-inducing—often all at once.
Here are our picks for the 10 best food TV shows of the decade. Dig in.
10. Food Network Challenge (Food Network)
You might think it’s a little silly, this idea of forcing master bakers to construct elaborate, mostly-inedible cakes within ridiculous time-frames in front of studio audiences, and then decamping to a back studio to hash out the details of the competition, Survivor confessional-style. But just try not holding your breath at the moment each team struggles to transport its towering confection from their workstation to the judges’ tables. Those wobbling sugar spires and near-toppling layers may very well provide the most purely suspenseful moments on TV these days.
9. Barefoot Contessa (Food Network)
Jeffrey Garten is one lucky man. His wife Ina—the warm, motherly force behind the whole Barefoot Contessa operation—is a powerhouse of comfort food, rolling out roasted chickens and pot pies and tarts as if the universal balance between good and evil depends wholly upon it. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that she used to work in the White House as a budget analyst on nuclear energy policy. She cooks, he eats, and we drool.
8. Food Party (IFC)
Mix one part Rachael Ray’s boundless enthusiasm with two parts Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and that comes somewhere close to approximating the delicious weirdness of Food Party, masterminded and hosted by art student Thu Tran and friends. Most of their creations aren’t quite edible—kitten pie, anyone?—but it’ll feed your appetite for unbridled weirdness, that’s for certain.
7. Man v. Food (Travel Channel)
Host Adam Richman’s gastrointestinal track probably hates him, but we’re thrilled by his cross-country travels to gorge on the biggest, spiciest, greasiest, most ridiculous food in America. He’s hit up whole-hog barbecue in North Carolina and a burger stacked five patties high in Boston, but nothing quite compares to his tete-a-tete with the dish dubbed “suicide hot wings” in Brooklyn, which earned him the dubious honor of being one of the only dudes this decade to cry on national food TV due to something other than being screamed at by Gordon Ramsay.
6. Ace of Cakes (Food Network)
Though the series occasionally edges uncomfortably into product over-promotion territory (featuring lavish baked delights for Delta, Milk Bone, Kung-Fu Panda, Cirque Du Soleil and other high-profile clients more interested in pushing their product than baked goods) it’s Duff Goldman and his merry cakesters’ sheer creativity, talent and endless good-humor that makes the show endlessly watchable, whether they’re whipping up a cake for a wedding, a bar mitzvah, Alaska’s 50th anniversary or, y’know, the cast and crew of Lost.
5. Bizarre Foods (Travel Channel)
Giant snails, shark meat, goat lungs—perhaps the oddest thing about all these dishes, each sampled throughout this series, is how absolutely unremarkable they must seem to the people who eat them every day. Despite show’s gobsmacked name, jolly, mound-headed host Andrew Zimmern digs into all manner of unfamiliar fare with unfazed relish and boundless curiosity.
4. Iron Chef America (Food Network)
Last time anyone got this over-dramatic about food, it was probably a five-year-old throwing a hissy-fit over being made to eat his asparagus—which, incidentally, was the “secret ingredient” on the 18th episode of this competition series. Whether it’s as basic as garlic or sugar, or as outlandish as suckling pig or ostrich, nearly every ingredient lends itself to an action-packed episode, as high on drama, athleticism and dripping sweat as any sporting event.
3. Good Eats (Food Network)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a food show host that didn’t really love food, but no one’s ever quite nerded out about it so thoroughly and sublimely as Alton Brown. From cheesecake to popcorn, gravy to barbecue, Brown explicates the inner-workings and finer points of common food with a patient, infections enthusiasm, wild sets and camera angles, and brains to spare.
2. Top Chef (Bravo)
The premise is simple—innovative chefs and restaurateurs compete each week to make the best meal—but Bravo’s finest show has created a whole new generation of foodies. With every episode, we find ourselves passionately invested in food we can’t even taste. Currently in its sixth season, Top Chef is more exciting than ever.
1. No Reservations (Travel Channel)
As much a travelogue as a food show, No Reservations finds Anthony Bourdain bravely eating street food in Bangkok and sulfur-cooked eggs in the volcanic springs of the Azores. The writer/chef has parlayed the success of his best-selling books Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour into five seasons of eloquent, candid reflections on offbeat culinary adventures everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Sri Lanka, making for a mouth-watering and ravenously addictive TV series.