Since the world went into pandemic mode, there has been an explosion of interest in online food content. Stuck at home, folks are tuning in to search for new recipes to try out at home, or perhaps simply to escape from the negative news. And those food shows follow a fairly predictable format: there’s the cooking demo, the food travel show, and the cooking competition.
But as I’m stuck at home streaming online, I’ve noticed a “messier” world out there of food shows that are veering away from the formulas of old—less slick, more offbeat, and where relatability seems to trump expertise. I also found myself pivoting towards hosts and their stories that aren’t told through the narrow lens of Anglo-American culture.
On YouTube, the Bon Appétit channel has been gaining record numbers, in no small measure thanks to hosts like the goofily good-natured Claire Saffitz (a star in the making!) of Gourmet Makes who recreates junk food staples into gourmet works of art.
In the same vein, Bon Appétit’s Pro Chefs series visits chefs in their very normal-looking home kitchens as they make such American staples as mac n’ cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. These shows may be unscripted and even a bit too raw at times, but they make for pretty entertaining food content.
Ever famous British TV chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are riding that trend with at-home cooking shows on YouTube where they seem even more unvarnished than their usual onscreen personas. Ramsay seems to be a bit of a mess, though, as he rushes to cook a meal in under 10 minutes while being filmed (and mercilessly critiqued) by his own children.
Oliver does the same as he cooks from an undisclosed room in his home (not his kitchen) where he has to awkwardly sit down while cooking to fit into the frame. It’s an odd set-up that seems to diminish his usually high energy delivery.
The one takeaway is that we see these two culinary food giants reduced to size. Despite their accolades and experience, they actually don’t seem to cook any better or worse than other less celebrated cooks.
A rising culinary star deflated
While older celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver may be seeing their stars slowly fading, one rising star is (or was) Alison Roman. She has a millennial’s self-deprecating, easygoing relatability, proper food credentials as a New York Times columnist and bestselling cookbook author, and unfussy, delicious recipes that tend to go viral. With a TV show in the works, she was poised to become the new food star of the COVID-era—until she dissed Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, two successful Asian women, for their perceived “selling out,” in a May 2020 interview.
The uproar was immediate, with accusations of white privilege, not to mention her tendency to co-opt recipes of non-Western origin as her own. For example, one of her most viral recipes, which she calls The Stew, is actually a simplified version of a common chickpea-coconut curry of South Indian or possibly Caribbean origins. (For more on the Alison Roman debacle, a quick Google search will reveal a trove of articles on the topic from US-based food media.)
A pivot away from the West
The reason I mention Alison Roman is to exemplify one of the reasons I seem to be pivoting away from shows with primarily white American or British hosts. This isn’t deliberate, and there’s no hate agenda here. But perhaps after decades of following mostly white foreign food experts, I’ve become much more interested in food narratives that travel a different path from the well-worn ones of the Nigella Lawsons, Martha Stewarts, and even Anthony Bourdains of this world.
One show launched on Netflix just this April fits the bill: Nadiya’s Time to Eat, hosted by the affable Nadiya Hussain who gained fame as the winner of The Great British Bake Off in 2015 (my favorite winner from one of my favorite cooking competitions, by the way). And I’ll go ahead and say it—I enjoy Nadiya’s Time to Eat precisely because Hussain is a proudly Bangladeshi-Brit Muslim who wears a hijab as she cheerfully helps time-starved British households with her recipes and tips. Unlike the Hamptons-elite aspirations of an Ina Garten, Hussain generously shares the spotlight with middle-class folk, as well as with the producers of much of the food we find on our grocery shelves.
One of Netflix’s most celebrated food shows is the award-winning Chef’s Table, a documentary series that ascribes god-like status to the world’s most acclaimed and mostly male chefs and their expensive Michelin-starred restaurants. While the episodes are lushly produced and the featured chefs worthy of praise, I admit that after a couple of seasons, the stories were starting to follow a too predictable path. Thankfully, the last two seasons 5 and 6 feature more women chefs or cooks of diverse origins but with stories, I think, that are even more compelling and significant. Among them are Cristina Martinez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who brought her family’s barbacoa heritage to Philadelphia; the African-American Mashama Bailey exploring Southern food traditions in Savannah, Georgia; and Indian native Asma Khan who broke out of her traditional housewife role to create an exciting Indian restaurant, completely run by women, in London.
Another Netflix show, Salt Fat Acid Heat, hosted by Iranian-American chef and food writer Samin Nosrat resonates as well. Her show is part food travel and part documentary that chronicles how different food cultures, from Japan to Italy to Mexico, explore the four elements of cooking. Sympathetic and relatable, she is a giddy sensualist who can dig into a too-spicy taco, not unlike Nigella Lawson, but without that upper-crust Brit glamor.
In a 2018 Eater interview, Nosrat describes her approach, “I do think that the most meaningful part of this for me was getting the opportunity to work with a lot of different people who are not historically shown on television. Not only people of color, but focusing on home cooks rather than restaurant cooking—focusing on the grannies. Any time I could, I was bringing that kind of stuff in, because I do feel like what we get to see on TV is pretty limited.” That pretty much sums up what we’re starting to see and enjoy online these days, and that has gotten me excited once again about the future of food shows.