Formats of food shows are pretty set these days. There are the competitions, brutal or kind. The ones that make food an oddity, a fetish, or glutton’s challenge. The chemistry-for-better-brining sort, often combined with The Traditionalists, who know these things by classical training and mastery. (I binge-watched the America’s Test Kitchen crew, Julia Child, and Jacques Pépin many times over the years, long before streaming services, simply by staying-tuned as advised.)
Then there are the shows where celebrity chefs or foodie personalities go places, and what they “learn” there is presented as the story, part travelogue, part educational programming. Guests speak of local, fresh ingredients, and tradition versus innovation. Someone cooks, as others come and go, talking of butter and oleo. If the show is on Netflix, everybody tastes things in the glory shot and says, F*** that’s good, as if to celebrate no longer being held to PBS language standards. And the food does look good, as do most of the people and the places they visit.
It is an old, predictable format, mostly comforting, like a frozen pizza—livened up with faded onions, olives, sliced ham, your kid’s string cheese—eaten while watching it. Everyone points back to Anthony Bourdain as the main influence, but most of the elements have been around since technology reduced the size of television cameras and liberated them from the studio. Before Bourdain, I adored Two Fat Ladies, “the motorcycle-cruising, sass-talking, pork [and butter]-loving, globe-trotting romanticists who starred in a British cooking show from 1996 to 1999.” Floyd on France was fun and offered “the contemplative sort of life.” Yan Can Cook and Cooking Mexican with Rick Bayless had out-of-studio segments, often filmed in other countries, in which the hosts looked for and explained authentic foodways.
Two recent series on Netflix use this format in similar ways but look different.
The Chef Show is hosted and produced by Jon Favreau and Roy Choi. Favreau is the director of Iron Man, Elf, and Chef. Roy Choi is an actor, producer, and famous food-truck owner in LA. They enjoyed working together on the fictional film Chef, and over time sort of managed to film and edit a series of cooking shows, Favreau says, wherever they happened to be. They pitched it to Netflix only when it was done. Their single season is divided into three “volumes” with a total of 20 episodes.
The two seem to have genuine affection for each other, and they chat and cook with guest-friends such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Rodriguez. Locations are mostly in and around Southern California. The show is laid-back enough to be a little dull, though there is an attempt to spice it up with manic animation in the opening sequence. (I have to look away during the intro, because it makes me accidentally bite the inside of my cheeks as I try to eat my pizza.)
The other series I have alternated with it is Ugly Delicious, which now has two seasons on Netflix, a total of 12 episodes. Ugly is hosted by David Chang, who founded the restaurant empire Momofuku. (Two of those restaurants have just closed permanently due to the COVID crisis.)
The first thing noticeably different between the two shows is the number of people involved. IMDB lists seven producers for Chef Show; Ugly has 34. Chef Show lists 30 people who appear onscreen; Ugly lists 124 (some of them also famous, including Aziz Ansari, Ruth Reichl, and Jimmy Kimmel).
Ugly is much more ambitious, and it shows in other ways, from multiple world locations, often in a single episode, to varied graphical approaches in different episodes. It looks more expensive than any similar series on Netflix; it looks more expensive than Bourdain’s shows. (Though when you watch all of Ugly, it is possible to see how, if they worked efficiently, multiple segments for different episodes might have been shot in a single visit to, say, Tokyo.) Ugly also strives to tell the stories of diversity in world culture, with many guests from those places. The whole is more interesting and provocative than Chef Show.
The tradeoff is that, while Favreau is shambling, and Roy Choi often soft-spoken, Chang is sometimes abrasive. He is often irritated, for instance, that Korean food is not better known and understood in the US, yet he brings narrow attitudes that verge on disrespect to other cuisines in foreign nations. (He always pronounces them delicious and amazing in the end.) He repeats that no one is more negative than he is, and he can seem immature. (His doting mother has called him “Baby King” since he was a child, but a mid-series episode shows him becoming a father himself, so the immaturity may shake out.) Given our current predicament, you may find one of these shows agreeable with a fine meal in the armchair of your choice.