When I first wrote about MasterChef Australia in 2011, I described the show as “Top Gear with meat and cheese filling". That still holds, even though the show’s amiable charms don’t grab me as they once did. Back in the height of MasterChef fandom, I must concede, the wife and I have waited patiently to stream episodes braving awful network while in a houseboat on the Dal Lake. The wholesome appeal is unsurprising—and Hotstar allows you to watch in waistline-threatening binges—though in our age of superlative television I cannot be bothered to keep up with a full-length reality competition.
When I was told this Lounge issue is a food special, I decided to explore other options for voyeuristic on-screen gluttony. In the Netflix documentary series Ugly Delicious, chef David Chang and his (mostly male) friends travel the world to explore different styles of popular foods, from the traditional to the heretical. Like all lovingly filmed food shows, it must be watched on a full stomach but this one also demands an open mind.
The first—and best—episode of the series, for instance, is about pizza, and its highlights include:
1) A sharply-dressed elderly gentleman who looks like a member of the Cosa Nostra, and has literally written the rulebook for what qualifies as a Neapolitan pizza.
2) Tokyo chef Ryu Yoshimura who puts gourmet tuna on pizza, using a specific mayonnaise instead of tomato sauce.
3) Chang ordering Domino’s Pizza to anger his chef friends in a bid against elitism, and then going out on delivery runs for the ubiquitous brand.
As someone who digs pineapple on pizza, I instantly appreciated the show’s breadth and the good-natured arguments Chang has with food writers and chefs as they kid around but willingly give in to the taste. When it comes to food, we all want to be proved wrong because that is the ultimate surprise. Ugly Delicious is the opposite of aesthetic, as the title suggests, since it covers all manner of purist and fusion-y styles. It is also immediately informative—did you know Americans consumed 100 acres of pizza a day?
Attempting to sum things up neatly, Chang asks his friends whether skill and tradition take a back seat to the love with which food is cooked, and Brooklyn pizza master Mark Iacono instantly shuts down this line of thinking, saying what matters most is actual skill, competence and the ability of the culinary artist to create something truly special. Everything else comes second, and this is well demonstrated by the loudly enthusiastic people at the absurd series Nailed It!
Cashing in on the internet trend of people trying to copy elaborate cakes and failing spectacularly, Nailed It features unfit bakers forced to attempt desserts requiring tremendous craftsmanship and balance. Their misfires are predictably awful, with wedding cakes all leaning towers and the colour of their icing more radioactive than resplendent. Hosted by comedian Nicole Byer and legendary chocolatier Jacques Torres, this Netflix series is amusing for about 10 minutes after which the schadenfreude gets exhausting. Especially considering that most of us would fall just as catastrophically short.
All of us would unquestionably stumble over at Zumbo’s Just Desserts. This Australian cooking competition (Netflix) is basically a wannabe MasterChef Australia without the savoury dishes—and the tartly amusing hosts. Pâtissier Adriano Zumbo—popularly nicknamed Lord Voldecake—sets up intricate confectionary challenges for talented amateur cooks. This is potentially fun but the show tries too hard to be cutesy, throwing on the fairy-tale music and amping up the Willy Wonka references. Add to this all that on-screen sugar, and the result is both monotonous and diabetic.
Typing “cooking" into your Netflix search box turns up odd results. The weirdest may have been Cooking On High, a show not about making sure meats are very well done but instead “the first competitive cannabis cooking show". This series feels like a Saturday Night Live spoof, where stoned judges who have “never eaten fish" giggle while being fed cod cakes poached in marijuana butter. Cheech and Chong would never approve of this unimaginative (and brightly-lit) monstrosity.
Going back to my beloved “Pizza" episode of Ugly Delicious—seriously, watch that first episode even if you leave the rest of the series alone—Chang asks Wolfgang Puck about the possibility of sacrificing creativity. “Creativity is good by somebody who is a good craftsman," explains Puck, the Austrian trailblazer behind global hot spots like Spago. “If you know the basics, if you know your profession really well, then you can navigate and try things." Words to live by for chefs, television producers, and, honestly, all of us. Now excuse me while I make dinner reservations.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen