BACK in the early 1960s, there was Julia Child in ``The French Chef.'' From 1969-71 came Graham Kerr's ``The Galloping Gourmet.'' But on a recent Saturday in Boston, one PBS station aired 22 half-hour food shows - from Italian, French, Chinese, and vegetarian to regional (Cajun, Amish) and even microwave. The Galloping Gourmet rides again in a new series, and Julia Child never left: Reruns of her series are still popular, though she hasn't done a new one since 1983.
If any further proof of the shows' popularity is needed, there's ``The Frugal Gourmet,'' with Jeff Smith. His show consistently ranks in the top five PBS programs overall. There's even talk of a special cable channel devoted to food shows.
What makes these programs so popular?
``In cooking shows, it's not just a popular ethnic cuisine that appeals, nor a certain approach to cooking,'' says Michael Styer, vice-president of broadcasting at Maryland Public Television. ``A good show needs a real communicator, an appealing personality.''
``And if the chef has a French or Italian accent - so much the better,'' adds Charles Pinsky, a New York TV producer who has worked with the likes of Pierre Franey and Madeleine Kamman. ``An accent is no problem because television doesn't depend so completely on the spoken word as radio. People are watching what the chef is doing as he is talking, so it comes across.''
``If there's a formula for television cooking, I'd say you need first, a good charismatic personality who is an equally good cook,'' says Daniel Everett, director of broadcasting at Boston PBS station WGBH. There are at least three audiences for such shows. ``Some want to see how things are put together, even though they might not tackle the project themselves. Another kind of viewer is happy just to watch the demystifying process, although they're not interested in cooking,'' he says.
``Then there's the person who is always looking for new recipes and cooking ideas, who will definitely cook after watching a show, especially if there's a companion book,'' he concludes.
Viewers who want details adore Julia Child, the superstar of this genre, who prides herself on not leaving out a single step. Hers are still considered by many the best TV cooking series of all with her scholarly thoroughness, wry humor, and undefinable charm.
And which cooking shows does Mrs. Child watch? Not many, she says, but ``I do like Pierre Franey's cooking on his `Cuisine Rapide' program, and I'm interested in seeing Jacques Pepin's new series.'' She adds: ``I know Jeff Smith is popular, and I think if cooking shows get people interested in cooking at home, that's all to the good.''
How many viewers are learning to cook and how many are just being entertained is a puzzler. Martin Yan of ``Yan Can Cook'' insists he is not an entertainer, although there's always plenty of laughter from his studio audiences. Exuberant, bouncy, and knowledgeable, he has done five cooking series for KQED-TV in San Francisco.
``I am dead serious about doing things correctly,'' Mr. Yan says, ``but I also like to have humor in my presentation. I do Asian dishes, but my cooking is mostly Chinese, and my mother comes on the set to share her dishes and photos of her kitchen in Canton.'' A food technologist and consultant, Yan says his shows are seen in Great Britain and Japan and around the world on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network.
TV chefs make it look so easy: Someone else does the cleaning up, and everything is pre-measured, pre-chopped, and ready to toss together. Then, through the ``magic of television,'' a beautiful dish instantly comes out of the oven, fully cooked.
``It's not quite that way, of course,'' says Nathalie Dupree of ``Nathalie Dupree's Matters of Taste,'' produced by Georgia Public Television. ``As most people know, it's necessary to have food ready in different stages. For example, I need to make five loaves of bread for just one recipe,'' she says. Ms. Dupree has as many as 25 people on the set when she's taping, including seven kitchen helpers.
`COOKING shows have changed over the years,'' says Michael Styer of Maryland public TV. ``We now do more shooting outside the kitchen than in early days, when one person was standing behind a counter. People are interested in stories that connect food to the past as well as the present. They want to see where it grows, how it's harvested, and how it gets to market,'' he says.
Show hosts and hostesses may have guest chefs, or visit famous restaurants. Viewers are taken on video trips to corn fields, rice paddies, or tofu factories.
The subject of food is common to men as well as women, but a rough count shows only five women hosts in 25 better-known television cooking programs. One wonders if women have made much progress in this male-dominated field.
Several TV chefs have an occasional program for children. Graham Kerr says as many as 20 to 30 percent of his studio audience on Fridays is made up of children. ``They're always a hit on camera, even if they don't like what I'm cooking. They see familiar ingredients. There's no talking down. They love the fun and the running around,'' he says.
``Lots of children watch my television cooking shows,'' says Marlene Sorosky, food writer and media personality. ``In these times of so much crime and violence on TV, watching a cooking show is certainly a good sign.
``Children who have two working parents with no time to cook may enjoy watching a parental figure in the kitchen. And some may want to learn to cook,'' she says. Ms. Sorosky, also a cooking teacher, does a five-minute food segment on ``American Magazine,'' a daily home show on the Nashville Network.
``Kids say they like to watch my show because I have so much fun,'' says Jeff Smith. ``I don't know if a cooking person could be a role model, but it's possible. I get letters from children, usually signed `A Friend.' Also letters from people in hospitals. There seems to be something comforting about food and the kitchen,'' he says.