You don’t need me to point out how much COVID-19 took away from all of us in 2020, but in a bizarre twist, the challenges of quarantine might have inadvertently pushed one genre to the next tier of excellence. Cooking shows — whether hosted on Food Network, HBO Max, or YouTube channels — nimbly adjusted to home kitchens where chefs finally had to confront the reality home cooks faced every day. More than that, the format of cooking shows like Selena + Chef or Amy Schumer Learns to Cook helped professional chefs react on the fly to a novice’s interpretation of their recipes. All told, cooking became less elitist and more down-to-earth, all good for inspiring wannabe chefs to try their hand at a new dish in the kitchen…
Thanks to the long lag time in most TV production schedules, the first part of food media that visibly showed the seismic effect of the pandemic on lives was YouTube. Chefs like Alton Brown and the personalities fronting for brands like New York Times Cooking and Bon Appétit set up makeshift studios in their own homes. Pantry pastas, comfort food, and classics made out of shelf-stable supplies became front and center in their demonstrations. And immediately these typically unflappable (for the most part) culinary figures were more than a little frazzled. I still often flashback to the BA Test Kitchen chefs incredulously taking stock of all the dishes home cooks have to do themselves when they don’t have staff to do it for them. The benefit of these clips was that the exalted chefs we follow had to get real for once. Maybe we didn’t need a million mise en place bowls and perhaps there were shortcuts that would help pull a dish together.
This trend of bringing aspirational cooking down to earth continued with The Pioneer Woman’s “Staying Home” series of iPhone-taped episodes. As I mentioned at the time they premiered, these episodes were “high art.” Ree Drummond’s whole brand is built on the collision of Western ranch aesthetics and her picture perfect (and incredibly affluent) life. Stripped of a professional production team on the ground and forced to rely on her adult daughters for help, Drummond not only loosened up like never before; she was more relatable than ever before. Proudly showing kitchen snafus like a wooden spoon catching fire and laugh-panicking through recipes, Drummond showed us that even her life wasn’t perfect. Her whole attitude was refreshingly honest and the recipes she showcased truly embodied the pantry-based meals we were all leaning on in the early days of quarantine.
But perhaps the biggest leap forward in cooking shows came from actress, pop star, producer, and entrepreneur Selena Gomez. While quarantining with a squad of gal pals and her adorable grandparents, the glamorous celeb decided to up her cooking game. HBO Max’s Selena + Chef was an inventive cooking show that used the limitations of filming remote during a pandemic to ironically connect Gomez and professional chefs in their home kitchens. Connected via video call, chefs would cook their favorite recipes alongside the superstar. The set up ironically forced the chefs to answer questions that wouldn’t occur to them and spot places home cooks might trip up in their own homes.
It cannot be stressed enough that one of the most incredible things about cooking shows is how, since the days of Julia Child, they’ve been about inviting a top tier chef into your home. An expert is on your television, in your home, guiding you through their most beloved recipes. What the genre has always missed, however, is the professional chef seeing what home cooks have to go through. Most cooking shows don’t account for cramped kitchens without dishwashers or imperfect knife skills or just the literal panic that can set in when you make don’t do something perfectly the first time. (Okay, Julia Child was all over that last one, but there’s a baked-in expectation that as long as you perfectly follow a recipe, it will be good!)
On Selena + Chef, professionals guide an amateur through the parts of cooking that fluster most of us, and because Selena Gomez is a world famous icon, they have to do it with total deference to their pupil. There’s no shaming or yelling. There’s only kind encouragement and calm clarification of what has to be done. Gomez is gamely standing in for the legions of us who watch cooking shows and want to emulate our culinary heroes, but we don’t know where to start. On Selena + Chef, those fancy chefs have to slow down and get real.
While the pandemic forced all of our lives to come to a screeching halt in 2020, the cooking show genre somehow trudged forward. Whether it was chefs filming from their home kitchens or joining Selena Gomez in her gorgeous kitchen, cooking shows confronted the reality of being a home cook like never before. Forget aspirational, cooking shows embraced showing life as it was in 2020: messy, stressful, and fueled by a lot of pantry pasta.