Looking though my drafts folder I see that I made an attempt to write about this in 2018. The first sentence I wrote is as follows
2017 for me was the year I started watching food shows in earnest. Prior to last year I had watched several seasons of Chef’s Table but only because my wife had been interested. I think we only were watching that because we had seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi and knew it was the same director.
Oh how things have changed! Where to start? In my recent year end list I mentioned that I do not include food programming because…well I don’t really know. There is not a good reason to exclude food programming from a year’s end list. I also exclude it from my private “Things I’ve Watched” list. My only explanation is that I consider this content different. Perhaps because of the educational component. Perhaps because I tend to watch it more than anything else. It is odd.
Where it all began for me was with the Netflix show Cooked. Based on a book by Michael Pollan cooked is a heady exploration into the world of cooking and culture. It’s dense and rewarding. I never thought much about many of the issues and concerns raised in this show. It radically changed the way I think about food and cooking.
In particular one point of Mr. Pollan’s struck me as such a simple truth – that a corporation is going to prepare the food you eat much differently than a person. This seems like an obvious truth but if you follow the thought you realize that a corporation will begin to do things to your food, things that your food does not need or want, thinking that it is in your best interest (or more likely, their own). The example he provides concerns bread and how the original recipes have the nutrients and minerals that our bodies need. The companies mass producing bread removed these and then attempted to re-add them to the bread. Which is nuts. Which is why it does not taste as good and is not as healthy for you to eat. Never mind substitutions being made that have no nutritional or flavor value at all (looking at you high fructose corn syrup).
What I love about this show is that it isn’t just a David versus Goliath story. Michael Pollan did not set out to take down large corporations with his book and show. It is an intellectual exploration of food and cooking and the state of things as they are. I was fascinated watching it and hungry for more once it was done.
Mind of A Chef
Somewhere around this point I came across the PBS show Mind of a Chef. Prior to this I had never heard of David Chang. Since then I have watched it enough times with my son that he refers to a chef’s knife as a “David Chang Knife”. There are worse things I suppose.
Anthony Bourdain narrates the show and very occasionally appears on screen. The heavy lifting is done, at least in season one, by David Chang and his occasional guests. The cooking is truly the star of the show and it is done in a no fuss manner. I like that.
I think if Mind of A Chef had started with any of its other chefs (with the exception of Ed Lee) I doubt I would have stuck with it. David Chang brings something wonderful to the table that appeals to me (having read his memoir since starting this post I now know that this was meant to be an app created by Lucky Peach and that essentially the rights were sold and his project was taken away from him. This makes sense). He’s a successful chef, a seemingly down to Earth person and a font of knowledge. Whereas Michael Pollan cooks things with his friends (who are not chefs), or chats with pit masters as they barbecue, David Chang cooks dishes he (and his fellow chefs) invented. He offers history and context to the weird creations he serves and he does it in a straightforward manner.
What I have encountered in so much food programming since is the bluster and the need to pontificate. The episode must begin and close with ponderous questions in hushed voices about what cooking really is. Anthony Bourdain does this with Mind of A Chef but then he fades away and you are left with some funny, interesting episodes about things like noodles and fermentation. The show is well made and fast paced. It does not rely on classical music and fancy dining rooms to hold your attention. So many of the scenes are in hot kitchens where the chefs mop their brows and cook food. I love it.
Salt Fat Acid Heat
I am not certain what I watched next but I believe it was Salt Fat Acid Heat. That feels correct. The four episodes are directed by Caroline Suh (who directed the episode of Cooked that featured Ms. Nosrat) and center on Samin Nosrat. They are based on her cookbook of the same name and each episode is about one of the four words. It is delightful. It is beautiful. It is educational but in a topical manner that feels fresh and alive. So many of the staples of food television are present, trips to fish markets and the host attempting to do the jobs of the farmers and fishermen and doing them poorly. What makes it all work is that Ms. Nosrat is charming and lovable. She’s passionate about food and a joy to watch.
I connected with her when watching this show to such a degree that even the staged segments, Samin asking questions she knows the answers to with the butcher, still work and feel correct. She has a charming screen presence. It does not hurt that they travel the world and have so many wonderful experts and chefs join her on screen. My favorite is Rodrigo in Mexico who is listed simply as “salsa lover”.
I learned more about the basics of cooking from this show than any other. It seems so simple now that Ms. Nosrat has broken the elements of cooking down into these four categories but I never thought of them this way before. Now it seems bizarre to take any other approach. Hers was the first cookbook I bought for my wife and it is continually being read and reread.
Somewhere in all of this we returned to Chef’s Table. What to say about this show? It is so incredibly uneven. If you make an evening of watching you go from an episode of Massimo Battura, who might be the most charismatic and lovable chef in the world to that guy, you know, in Upstate New York (It’s Dan Barber and I don’t mean to pick on him, I do remember his name). My point being that because the episodes have different directors and different approaches they vary from great to middling.
Reading an interview with one of the directors (Abby Fuller) it is clear why. She was assigned the chefs to make her episodes about. As such her first episode follows an incredible chef from Slovenia that she connected with and made a terrific episode about. Her next assignment was with a German chef that it is clear she did not care for. It is all there on the screen and is baffling. No one was done any favors with this system and I think it is why my viewing fell off drastically after Chef’s Table France (except for the Chef Tosi and Sean Brock episodes).
The four episodes in France are incredible and I urge everyone to watch them. I think of them often. Not just for the food but for the incredible stories told. Each one is so dense and rich, sometimes I find myself confusing them simply because there is so much to sift through in my mind.
The Chef Show
Which brings us to The Chef Show. It is an odd show with an odd premise. Filmmaker Jon Faverau enjoyed his time preparing for the Chef movie so much that he created this show in order to spend more time with Roy Choi. If you have ever seen Roy Choi in anything this is easy to understand. Mr. Choi is such a calm, positive, brilliant chef that watching him work and interact with others is a joy.
The show is interesting because Mr. Faverau is at times the attentive student and at others the blustering dilettante. When he attempts to lead the show lags as Roy stands patiently in the background waiting to work. When they both play the parts they were assigned, Roy the chef teaching Jon the student how to make a dish, it soars.
They have numerous episodes with guests and some are positively delightful. When Roy cooks with other chefs you can see the thoughts coming and being translated into food. The shorthand he has with other chefs, the respect for one another, it is wonderful to watch. A favorite is when Jazz Singsong cooks with Jon and Roy. She seems quite taken with Jon and nutures him and makes sure he is careful with the Chili’s. She allows Roy to cook but gives guidance which he accepts with humility. It’s really quite lovely to watch.
Taste The Nation
Taste The Nation is an odd show. The trailer gave me the sense that it would have more of a focus, that it would allow the chefs and cooks more of a platform to share their ideas and talents. To some extent it does but the show never lets you forget that the star of it is Padma Lakshmi. Which isn’t a terrible thing except she’s not a chef. She’s a model, turned television host and cookbook author who really likes food.
This show makes me think of what The Chef show is like when Jon takes command. It’s not bad but it is certainly less interesting. I think Ms. Lakshmi has more knowledge and skill in the kitchen but it isn’t her thing. With the shows that really work it’s because you have someone that has been running a kitchen for ten, twenty years, creating the dishes that you are seeing them make. They aren’t stopping by to see how something is made, taking a few bites and then jaunting off to the next location. For me the real pleasure and learning comes from seeing people who are established enough in their craft that they are able to transfer their knowledge and wisdom onto the viewer. It’s less interesting when the person seems slightly better informed than I am.
Which brings us back to David Chang and Ugly Delicious. I did not have a sense of what this show would be but my love of Mind of A Chef is strong and I dove right in. What I love about this show (season one in particular) is how many other great chefs and cooks are in it. The structure of having an episode be about one topic (pizza, noodle) and then going all over the world with different people, is great. There are so many incredible people I did not know (or had heard of but not really seen) that this show makes into stars. Rosio Sanchez comes to mind.
Ugly Delicious is so much more than a cooking show. Or perhaps it’s just the right kind of cooking show, that is offering more than recipes and reactions. There is a lot of history and socio-political debate about the importance of dishes and kinds of foods for various people and communities. The fried chicken episode in particular is wonderful for this. What I appreciate most is that questions are asked and often there is no final word from David Chang or anyone else. It is a thought-provoking show that feels like what I wish my life was like. Going about with friends, eating amazing food and having incredible conversations.
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Sadly this was followed by Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. A show that should have a solid premise and foundation but is ultimately not knowing what it wants to be or do. It is also crippled by having two guests who bring very little to the table in terms of deep thoughts or interesting conversation. It reminds me of what television used to be, largely uninteresting with moments sprinkled in that are pretty great. I am being harsh but my expectations for this show, which came out of nowhere like a great pandemic gift, were so very high. I appreciate what David Chang does and this was very much a let down.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the Great British Baking Show (or Bake Off for those not in America). It’s not a mistake, I have not watched the show. My wife watches it. My children watch it but I cannot. I greatly dislike every form of reality television and even that show, which I think is about as pure as reality TV can be, is not for me.
What is for me is Nadyia Hussain. Period. Full Stop. She’s the best. I watched Nadia Bakes first and I love it. I’m not much of a baker but she makes everything so easy and effortless that by the time an episode is over I am convinced I can do it all. She feathers in so many tips and tricks while making her cakes and biscuits that it is easy to feel this way. I enjoy both of her shows on Netflix but I greatly prefer it when she bakes. We’ve tried so many of her recipes in my home and I am so pleased we have.
Waffles and Mochi
I feel a little goofy for including Waffles and Mochi, it is a children’s show after all. There are puppets and talking mops and a magic cart. Yet, there is also a lot of wonderful content about food and cooking. Some fantastic chefs (and familiar faces) are on the show and a lot of the information is quite advanced given that this program is made for children. It has Michelle Obama as a grocery store owner. I’m just going to own it, I love Waffles and Mochi. My children? Not so much. But my wife and I occasionally watch it without them so there you have it. Mochi is adorable, Waffles is my hero and I definitely want a Magic Cart of my own now.
It feels like I am leaving other programs out but for the life of me I cannot think of them. I’m not including standalone films (or fiction films like East Side Sushi, which is amazing). One thing that stands out to me with most of the programs I have written about is how well they stand up to multiple viewings. I have no idea how many times I have watched some of these. I’ve learned so much about fermentation or how to properly salt beans or even just the wonders of eggs in the past few years. It is incredible. My children don’t appreciate this in the same way they don’t appreciate cell phones and being able to find most anything on YouTube but I am thrilled that we have access to such wonderful shows. My children are going to absorb so much of this knowledge and understanding and not even realize it.
The way that watching these shows and recreating these recipes have changed my household is tremendous. I do actual proper cooking and baking in the kitchen now. Whereas before I did what I knew worked – now I experiment. My kids experiment. We try things together and sometimes they work. It’s not often that I can point to television and say, “This improved my life” but here I can and I think that is amazing.