In the first few months after my first kid was born – a bewildering, astonishing time that combines the bliss of a honeymoon with the arbitrary cruelty of a psychological experiment — I have spent hours watching chefs handcraft ravioli in slow motion.
I’ve seen a flamboyant Argentine roast a flayed lamb to glistening perfection on a remote snow-flecked island in Patagonia. From the comfort of my couch, I’ve observed the Martu people of Australia toasting monitor lizards over hot coals and I’ve watched a sodium-drunk David Chang slurp bowl after bowl of ramen. I now know what an edible representation of Peru’s rocky shoreline looks like and have consequently learned that food does not need to be “tasty” to be important. I have, of course, streamed Cooked and Mind of a Chef, watched the entirety of Chef ’s Table with a glazed fixation, and followed it with lesser-known food docs like For Grace and Entre les Bras. And in the dull grey hours of early morning, an impossibly tiny newborn perched on my chest, I have discovered within myself an unexpected hunger for a very specific kind of nourishment: gorgeously shot, meticulously presented, pretentious-as-fuck cooking shows.
Sleep-addled and punch-drunk, bouncing on an exercise ball for hours at a time with an infant in my arms, I let Netflix autoplay episode after episode.
Food television has always been appealing — flicking on the Food Network late at night to watch some companionable TV personality perform complex acts of craftsmanship in easy-to-follow steps is as soothing and familiar as a bowl of pho. But in the strange aftershock of new parenthood, something about this particular version of food TV became a compulsion. In the midst of chaos, I craved the escapism of the glossy fantasy: the absurdly beautiful plates, the intense personalities, the sheer luxuriousness of the product on display. Sleep-addled and punch-drunk, bouncing on an exercise ball for hours at a time with an infant in my arms, I let Netflix autoplay episode after episode.
The fact that I became obsessed with highbrow food shows at a time when I have personally cooked less than ever is telling. Today, the gap between the food we consume through the media and the food we consume at our kitchen tables and on our couches and hunched over our sinks has never been larger. We click through slideshows of elaborate braises while making pasta for the third time in a week. We watch Top Chef, tut-tut-ing as a competitor makes yet another dashi, while we heat up a frozen Dr. Oetker’s pizza.
This current era of prestige food TV feels like the logical endpoint of this transformation — the ultimate expression of cooking as art form rather than as quotidian fact of life. The genre’s often called “food porn.” But while shows like Chef ’s Table do come with a money shot — the head-on images of dishes that arrive at the episode’s climax, accompanied by the frenzied strings of Vivaldi — the primary appeal isn’t the beautiful shots of Wasabi Langoustine, but the portrait of creative genius.
For all the movies and books about artists, actually capturing creativity is notoriously difficult. In biopics, the act of creation is always ponderous and too literal. Sheets of paper are crumpled and tossed into the wastebasket as a writer slaves over his masterpiece. A painter stabs at a canvas, steps away and scowls, takes a drink. A musician plays a chord, mumbles a lyric that is not quite right, and before you know, through the power of montage, we hear the finished song.
Cooking is one of the few activities that allow you to see creativity in real time. In one of the stock scenes of any high-minded food doc, a chef will stand before a farmer’s market bursting with produce or in a fully-stocked pantry and look for inspiration. The cameras watch as a chef takes raw ingredients and creates something beautiful. In interviews, the cook narrates the epiphanies behind their greatest creations — the moment he dropped a lemon tart on the ground and, stunned by the unconventional beauty, realized that his desserts needed to be deconstructed.
Prestige food TV places chefs within a familiar archetype: the tempestuous, uncompromising genius who follows his or her personal muse at all costs. It’s a vision of genius that runs from the Romantic poets to Picasso to Prince. One episode from the latest season of Chef’s Table follows Ivan Orkin, an outspoken New Yorker who ventures to Japan and becomes the rare outsider recognized as a master of ramen. “I make food that I want to eat and I’ve never made any apologies,” he declares. The episode about the Berlin chef Tim Rau narrates his move away from French cuisine and into Asian influences as if describing Dylan going electric — a dangerous break from tradition that could have alienated his fans but that is testament to his artistic bravery.
If you’re a parent, following your artistic muse at all costs and refusing to compromise doesn’t make you a genius; it makes you an asshole.
This vision of chef-as-transcendent-genius is, to be clear, often ridiculous. The attempt to cram people who are extremely good at making pasta into an old-fashioned model of the artist is constantly on the verge of self-parody. It’s impossible not to watch the way the prestige food doc presents a fillet of salmon as if it were a Botticelli, strings swelling, without being aware of the absurdity of the whole venture. But as a new parent and a writer — someone who has, in small ways, spent most of my obligation-free years pursuing the things I enjoy — something about the show’s vision of creativity as some romantic, selfish pursuit satisfied a craving.
In perhaps the archetypal Chef’s Table episode, we follow the Argentinean bon vivant Francis Mallmann as he cooks over open flames in the wilds of Patagonia. We see him set off in a boat across a misty lake, catch a trout, then bake it in clay on the shore. Oozing with charisma, Mallmann expounds on his life philosophy, his love of fire. “When you cook with fire, it’s a bit like making love. It could be huge, strong. Or it could go very slowly,” he says, over images of thick slabs of beef sputtering and charring over hot coals in the wilderness. “My big draw in life since I was very young is believing only in myself and not letting myself be led by anybody,” says Mallmann. “I want to be my own. I wanted to do whatever I wanted.”
To watch the show as a new dad, a can of soup burbling on the stove, one ear cocked to the baby monitor, is to engage in a kind of escapism that goes beyond just dreaming about cooking meat in the wilderness. Having a kid is many things, but it is explicitly not about doing whatever you want. If you’re a parent, following your artistic muse at all costs and refusing to compromise doesn’t make you a genius; it makes you an asshole. So, while Mallmann’s philosophy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny if you think about it too closely, within the aspirational flow of an episode of gourmet television, it feels as sumptuous and rare as a trout plucked from the lake and baked in clay: an absurd delicacy you will never experience but that is, nevertheless, nice to think about.