By Ken Tucker
Updated August 22, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

With The Restaurant, Forever Summer With Nigella, and 30 Minute Meals With Rachael Ray, the networks are serving us three different entrees into cooking shows. The first is a reality series centered around a star chef, his petulant staff, and impossible-to-please customers; the second is a foodie fantasy that eroticizes chicken breasts and chocolate; the third is cashew-nuts-and-bolts stuff: getting good grub on the table, fast.

About The Restaurant, if you’ve seen the ceaseless American Express spots starring chef Rocco DiSpirito, you’ve pretty much seen the show. In the ads, white-aproned hunk DiSpirito whines about the long odds against launching a successful restaurant over some quick cuts of frying-pan fare being flipped, wine bottles being uncorked, and voiceover plugs for the credit-card company’s small-business loans. In Restaurant itself, we see much of the same thing: whine, wine, and flip, plus hyped-up montages to create false suspense when a customer (gasp-choke!) discovers that her chicken entree is really veal. Add a waitstaff hired more for their self-absorbed exasperation than napkin-folding skills, and you’ve got a show that can be entertaining (who doesn’t like a good kitchen fire?) without ever being likable.

The big mistake Survivor producer Mark Burnett made was setting Restaurant in Manhattan, universal epicenter of know-it-all rudeness as practiced by media-conscious climbers. Do I care that DiSpirito (a hustler who trundles out his little old mom to calm eaters angry about cold appetizers) thinks his joint is ”hemorrhaging money”? Or that one of Rocco’s surliest waitresses resents having to be ”nice to everyone”? No. Had the show followed the genesis of a grilled-cheese-‘n’-milk-shake diner in Dubuque, Iowa, curiosity and sympathy might have swelled within my own chicken breast; as it is, it’s fun to see so many New Yorkers so ostentatiously miserable amid so much ripe produce.

Speaking of ripe, Nigella Lawson is, of course, the British Sophia Loren of linguine, a curvy cook whose shows are shot in soft-focus with woozy world-beat music on the soundtrack. With her tight sweater wobbling over a bowl of ”a very rough-and-tumble salad” and her guttural purrs about ”six egg whites… whisked until they’re gleamy and satiny,” Nigella demonstrates clearly explained, reasonably simple meal making, but she also delivers the kitchen version of a Penthouse Forum letter come to life. Enough of a writer herself to have scored a column in The New York Times, Lawson is all about the adjectives on this new Forever Summer series. Chocolate shards are ”cratery splinters”; Japanese cold noodles are ”that slippery tangle”; ever the harsh mistress, she commands us, when making a meringue, to add the sugar ”serenely, slowly, unworriedly.” Yes, ma’am.

In contrast to Nigella, Rachael Ray is all-American spunky: ”In the time it takes you to watch this program,” she informs us at the top of 30 Minute Meals, ”I’ll have made a delicious and healthy meal from start to finish.” Ray looks like a can-do college sorority sister; one of her recent nostalgia-laced themes was ”My Favorite Teenage Hang-Out Foods,” by which she meant buffalo wings and ”double-stuffed” baked potatoes. Unlike Nigella, who scorns Americans’ calorie obsessiveness and insists that we ”splosh” cream on top of desserts, Rachael reminds her boomer demographic that you can still chomp on buffalo wings if you don’t deep-fry ’em but use boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead.

Sometimes cutesy (she refers to extra virgin olive oil as ”e-v-o-o!” and uses two ”scoopies” of sour cream for potato skins that ”are gonna rock!”), Ray has the virtue of honest efficiency. She actually cooks in real time, and her simple suggestions like keeping a ”garbage bowl” on the kitchen counter — a place to dump parings, empty cans, and drained water rather than hauling them to the sink disposal or the garbage pail — make her the most useful of all the current TV chefs. Did you know you should squeeze lemons by holding the cut half upright so the seeds don’t fall into your recipe? Nigella may be your go-to gal for a retro, swingin’-’60s, London-style party, but it’s Rachael Ray you’d want bustling around the kitchen when the gang is coming over to watch the football (not soccer) game in half an hour. Restaurant: B- Forever Summer: A- 30 Minute Meals: A-