Why I’m addicted to TV cooking shows
An onslaught of reality television programmes, documentaries and series' centred around food has got me hooked, and it's not just me
A strange thing has happened to me. I have become a cooking show junkie.
Tastes ebb and flow all the time, and I’m no stranger to a fleeting but obsessive fixation on TV shows, films, books, and pop culture products. But this latest obsession of mine has crept up on me and shows no sign of going away. There is something about the almost pornographic fetishisation of food, and the pretence of elegance and culinary sophistication, all mixed in with a reality TV formatting that keeps me glued to my laptop screen (I’m not even sophisticated enough to actually own a television through which to watch, which strikes me as rather ironic). It is escapism at its best, and pure comfort in its familiarity.
However, this isn’t to say that I think all cooking shows have intelligent merit unworthy of criticism, in fact, quite the opposite. I almost think of it as a guilty pleasure, like secretly liking the Big Bang Theory or Paramore. There is, of course, a spectrum of televised cooking like any other genre, ranging from the high-brow, indulgently pretentious food documentaries like Netflix’s Chef’s Table or the BBC’s Rick Stein’s Long Weekends, to trashy reality programmes like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Worst Cooks in America, and more middle-ground competitions and shows like MasterChef and Great British Bake Off. But believe me when I say: I’d watch them all.
A cultural fascination with television centred around food and cookery is nothing new, yet the trend seems to have grown eight legs and crawled in every direction since the boom of streaming sites. A perhaps curious commentary on this is the popularity of cooking shows among young people. I remember watching UK home cook Delia Smith on TV with my mum when I was younger, a saccharinely sweet woman who is in all honesty the antithesis of ‘cool’. Think Martha Stewart with a painfully middle class British accent. This was my first impression of TV cooking; mundane, provincial, unglamorous. Fast forward to 2017 and it’s an unrecognisable kaleidoscope of oxidised foams, seafood veloutes and rockstar chefs.
Chef’s Table is the perfect example of food TV with an infusion of intellectualism and waft of elitism. Netflix has expertly cashed in on a growing trend of millennials consuming food television, using its data-gathering tools to identify its core demographic and produce focused programming for these ‘aspirational’ tastes. It’s no secret that younger people have turned towards aesthetically-driven, organic, hispterfied food and drink, popularised largely by the explosion of Instagram and clean-eating gurus. Food, in itself, is a trend. Therefore the assimilation of ‘no filter needed’ plates of stylised cuisine with consumer television feels like a natural progression.
For me, food documentaries, in comparison to their reality competition counterparts, feed my longing for grandeur, exuberance, excess. Food is no longer just sustenance, it is art, and in the hands of a master is as deserving of critical attention as any painting hanging in The Louvre. One episode of Chef’s Table sticks out in my mind, the story of three Michelin star chef Grant Achatz, whose literally free-floating food (such as a helium-filled sugar balloon) is nothing short of culinary wizardry, and teamed with a personal story of an against-all-odds battle with cancer, the episode is genius in its execution. Its director, David Gelb, is also responsible for making Jiro Dreams of Sushi, another Netflix cult documentary that follows 85-year-old Tokyo sushi master Sukiyabashi Jiro. Filmmakers like Gelb skilfully satisfy audience appetites for unattainable mastery, a good backstory and interesting protagonists; the mainstay of any popular narrative.
Then there are the countless reality competitions that scratch a different itch. Take MasterChef, for example. Each week, amateur home cooks battle it out against each other, creating recipes and dishes for the judges and food critics, and working with some of the best chefs in their kitchens to prove that they are the best. This is just reality TV with a veneer of sophistication. Whereas shows like Big Brother and The X Factor are renagaded to the trash pile of consumer-driven TV, programmes like MasterChef are ‘allowed’, as if the educated and cultured twin of two evils. Yet, both largely work with the same mechanisms. There’s the drama, the pitting of competitors against each other, watching as they fall, applauding when they rise. There’s the TV-trained experts, the judges, the aficionados who can offer informed commentary with the superior knowledge we have no access to.
Most fundamental to the reality TV cooking competition however is its rigid format. Every episode follows the same formulaic structure, so much so that it’s even possible to predict the very words that come out of the judges’ mouths. Furthermore, every cooking show is more or less the same as each other in structure, just with different content. But rather than being a viewer criticism, this actually works to these shows’ favour. It is as if the very repetition so scorned in other forms of entertainment is what keeps us coming back for more. We watch on autopilot as the same events play out in front of us. Interestingly, a 2016 UK study found that we spend more time watching food on TV than we do cooking it. So perhaps rather than loving cooking, or food for that matter, such shows are just another face of reality television tribalism. Which I must admit is slightly disconcerting as I have fancied myself as someone who isn’t a slave to consumerist trends. Maybe I was wrong.