I came of age watching food television that was all about the act of cooking itself: how to chop an onion, mince garlic, fry an egg, roast chicken, emulsify a vinaigrette. Mostly on PBS, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Ming Tsai, Lidia Bastianich, and the cooks at America’s Test Kitchen gave televised tutorials to teach the public how to cook well for themselves, their families, and their friends. The hosts of those old PBS shows were skilled professionals who conveyed the nuances of food for the enhancement of public knowledge and well-being, not celebrity chefs and their celebrity friends reflecting on life as they savored delicacies in some photogenic locale. Food television was about ordinary people learning to cook and create. But now it’s become much more about consumption and contemplation, with more than a dash of half-baked insights into culture and life. How-to cooking shows still exist on PBS, Food Network, and elsewhere, but they’re overshadowed by travel food shows like Somebody Feed Phil and chef-as-philosopher shows such as Chef’s Table and The Mind of a Chef, which deliver a fusillade of platitudes and self-satisfied semi-insights into culture and life.
David Chang’s 2018 Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, toured the world searching for an answer to the question of what makes something authentic. His new Netflix series, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, wrestles with the idea again, but it’s focused heavily on celebrity guests and what authenticity means to them. Chang’s traveling partners include Seth Rogen, Chrissy Teigen, Lena Waithe, and Kate McKinnon, but he said in an interview that “it wasn’t important to get these famous people, and that wasn’t the idea. … It was to show that someone that you might admire” could be “just like you.”
But if celebrities are just like us, why do we care what they have to say? When Chang and his celebrity friends informally reflect on the inauthenticity at the core of celebrity, the results can be hard to watch, but they’re also compelling. The sympathetic Rogen posits that cooking and making movies are a lot alike because both require teamwork as well as individualism; Chang agrees that stand-up comedy (how Rogen got his start) is like cooking in that both are about making an audience feel like they’re a part of the creative process. It’s a bit haphazard as reflections go, but not devoid of merit.
The series has other worthwhile moments too, like in the second episode, where Chang and Chrissy Teigen tour Morocco and she asks him if he’d ever eat human flesh. He demurs, but she says that if it were at “a very fancy restaurant,” she’d consider it. Maybe the most insightful moment (because it’s about food) is when Chang reflects on how serving people something you’ve cooked directly is “as simple and difficult as humanly possible,” echoing his fidelity to cooking, to forging bonds with people through food—all of which sounds a lot like the ethos of the old shows that focused so intently on cooking for and serving others.
Chang and his friends seem to feel trapped by their fame and tempted to live the lives of the people around them, whom they seem to perceive as grounded and informed by history and place, rather than media, image, and wealth. When I asked him if he felt celebrity had changed him, Chang said he tried “to not think about it” and then described thinking about it as like “spinning off the planet.’” But the series never lets you forget that you’re watching people whose lives are not like yours. They jet off to a faraway place, eat a lot of food, and reflect on culture and life, all of it on camera.
The Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner episodes in Morocco and Cambodia (the latter with Kate McKinnon) deal with places more foreign to Chang, his friends, and probably most viewers than the episodes in Vancouver with Seth Rogen or Los Angeles with Lena Waithe. Chang and his friends’ approach to those more foreign cultures is open and curious to a point, but their desire to experience culture competes with their need to reflect on their worldly success and its pitfalls while in those places.
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, an exception to the tedium of much consumption/contemplation food television, strove to do the opposite. The best episodes of that show featured locals almost always as the focus. Bourdain and his travel mates certainly had their occasional reflective turns, but it was clear that each place and its people were the focal points of the show, not them. In Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, the viewers are at risk of “spinning off the planet” themselves. It’s how you know food programming needs to return to its how-to roots, stripping itself of its celebrity focus and its anxious inwardness and its casting about for “what it all means” in the midst of profound earthly success.
What ultimately makes these kinds of shows popular is that they promise the possibility of personal meaning through immediate gratification. Food is the easiest of art forms to engage with because it affords the most immediate pleasure, even when the experience of a dish is as complex as its composition. That’s not to say food doesn’t benefit from, and even sometimes require, expertise and experience at the highest levels. But it’s tempting, and profitable, to pair profound culinary experience with profound cultural insight. Add celebrity to the mix and it’s tough to look away. But we should.
Food television is at its best when it focuses on cooking as an art and skill in forging familial and communal bonds, and not as a means to philosophize about culture or rhapsodize about life. It’s hard to deny food’s connection to the past, its pleasure in the present, and the deep connection between the two. Food and philosophy can even go together in exceptional circumstances (see My Dinner With André). But food-and-travel programming like Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner has wandered too far into the appetite-driven fog of contemplation. Food television is best served by shows on how to cook for people who want to learn to cook, not be pleasure-seeking citizens of the world. Let the food speak for itself. The big questions can be answered later.