TV Dinners: How Kitchens Became the Hottest Room on Television

Much has changed since the days when Julia Child ruled cooking shows. For starters, large amounts of testosterone have been added to the menu

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Film Review - The Menu
Ralph Fiennes, center, in a scene from "The Menu."Credit: Eric Zachanowich/AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I’m ashamed to report that the most commonly heard sound in my apartment since spring 2020 is the upbeat jingle of food delivery service Wolt.

How frequently does that “Do-do-do-do” sound reverberate around the home? Enough to drive my dog crazy every time she hears it. She quickly learned that it means someone will soon be at our front door and when it goes off, so does she.

I call it the “Wolt Jolt” – the 21st-century equivalent of Pavlov and his salivating pooch. It’s so annoying that I’m thinking of doing something radical: preparing my own food again.

It’s fair to say, though, that currently the most time I’m spending in a kitchen is via a screen – and, I’ve got to ask, when did restaurants become such scary places?

Honestly, the cuisine-set dramas I’ve been watching recently should all have two warnings: “May harm your blood pressure” and “May contain nuts.”

That’s because the lead characters in these super-tense works are all tortured artists who have definitely failed to find the recipe for a happy life. As for work-life balance? That seems as distant a prospect as a left-wing Israeli government.

Torture chambers

No one can watch shows like Disney’s “The Bear” or films like the British indie “Boiling Point” or Hollywood thriller “The Menu” and call them amuse-bouches. These are intense works of fiction that turn kitchens into torture chambers with strict health and safety protocols. A caveman diet in visual form.

These kitchens don’t need human resources staff so much as human rights lawyers. They are workplaces where the most commonly used white powder is cocaine rather than baking soda. Environments featuring more alphas than a Greek game of Scrabble.

Like so many things in life, I blame Gordon Ramsay. Before he came along with his filthy mouth and even filthier temper, restaurants were generally regarded as places of comparative tranquility.

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen 'Carmy' Berzatto in "The Bear."Credit: Frank Ockenfels / FX

Before they became synonymous with bullying, macho figures like Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain, the main four-letter F-word associated with the kitchen was “feta.” No more.

As far as I can see, the change began in the 1990s when the kitchen became infested with fly-on-the-wall cameras. These captured what was really happening as you relaxed on the other side of the restaurant wall.

We were suddenly being offered something that went completely against the grain of what we were experiencing on “our side”: organized chaos with a side dish of pure, unadulterated rage.

The irony of all this, of course, is that television kitchens are far more genteel places. Daytime TV is full of warm, cozy kitchens where smiling, photogenic chefs share their expertise and recipes, encouraging us to improve our own skills – or at least work out which end of the knife to hold – as we drool at their culinary expertise.

And if they’re not teaching us to become better cooks, they’re seeking our respect as cooking and baking increasingly become a televised food fight: from the many forms of “MasterChef” (the all-powerful franchise whose shows start with amateurs and go all the way to the top professionals) to “The Great British Bake-Off” (a.k.a. “The Great British Baking Show”).

The latter is still the outlier in all of this competitiveness: an hour of human kindness where you don’t need to worry about all those sharp implements within the competitors’ grasps. Thirteen seasons in, this has become the very antithesis of dog-eat-dog, with acts of generosity among the competitors as common a sight as soggy bottoms and Paul Hollywood handshakes.

It has spawned an entire genre. I’m not sure Netflix would still function if all of its cooking and baking shows were suddenly shut down by health inspectors.

And it’s a similar story with Israeli TV: “My Kitchen Rules.” “Game of Chefs.” “In the Kitchen with Miri.” “Cooking with Chef Aviv Moshe.” “The Perfect Dessert.” And that’s before we even get to specialist channels like the Food Network, where you can gorge 24/7. Fans of cookery shows will never go hungry.

Skewering the food world

It seems that most kitchen doors should have a sign hanging over them: Here be monsters – because the restaurant seems to be the last place on Earth where bad behavior is still accepted, nay encouraged. (An alternative sign could be “You don’t have to be an asshat to work here – but it helps.”)

Along with his “bad boy” contemporaries like Marco Pierre White and Bourdain, Ramsay became the embodiment of the celebrity chef – more likely to do a “chef’s Glasgow kiss” than chef’s kiss in the kitchen.

Large amounts of testosterone were added to the menu and cooking was no longer (Julia) Child’s play or the embodiment of a feminine role as served up by the likes of Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson.

And that’s not all that triggered this food revolution where a man’s place was suddenly in the kitchen. I’d also cite the Michelin Food Guide belatedly reaching the United States in 2005 – meaning pomposity and ego were no longer confined to foreign shores, and the quest for Michelin stars ushered in a new form of food snobbery.

And, of course, the biggest change came with us, the clientele, who stopped seeing food as a necessity and helped turn it into an art form. Long before Instagram, we became obsessed with food as both theater and visual art, transforming the restaurant into a place of worship. The diner was out; haute cuisine was in.

That pomposity is savagely pricked in Mark Mylod’s new dark comedy-thriller “The Menu,” in which Ralph Fiennes plays Chef Slowik – a chef whose ego, it emerges, isn’t the most maniac thing about him. And who better to portray a callous, cold-blooded screwup than the man who previously gave us Amon Göth and Lord Voldemort?

Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot in a scene from "The Menu."Credit: Eric Zachanowich/AP

“The Menu” is very much in the style of “La Grande Bouffe,” the savage French satire from 1973 in a which a group of men gather to literally eat themselves to death. The twist here is that Mylod’s film gives us food as death cult, a place where the chef is blindly followed by both staff and devotees alike. “Master” chef in its ultimate form.

It’s all wonderfully over the top and a belated stab at pretentious food critics and foodies who would literally die to get a place at the chef’s table.

In this case, the Candide figure beloved of the genre – the innocent who wanders into the madness with a fresh pair of eyes (as also depicted in the Israeli Yes series “The Chef,” where a newbie learns the ropes under the tutelage of an obnoxious chef) – is diner Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who sensibly thinks that foam belongs in a bath rather than on your plate.

I laughed throughout at the skewering of the food world. In fact, a restaurant’s worst nightmare is my biggest compliment for “The Menu”: no reservations, even down to the pitch-black ending.

The taut British film “Boiling Point” gives us a more familiar presentation of kitchen life: one where the audience’s nerves are shredded like duck as tensions threaten to, well, boil over.

The film’s USP is presenting the story in real time and in one audacious shot – so for 90 minutes we are participants in an escalating food drama which we know will not end sweetly.

At its center is barely functioning head chef Andy (Stephen Graham), painfully ill-equipped to handle the busiest night of his restaurant’s year. Without giving too much away, a customer’s food condition acts as the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun (henceforth to be known as “Chekhov’s bun”), in this wickedly tense drama that will leave you searching for comfort food to calm your frayed nerves.

Interestingly, “Boiling Point” is now being turned into a TV series. If it wants an example of how to create a kitchen drama that works perfectly in short form, it need only study FX’s “The Bear” (showing internationally on Disney+).

In fact, “The Bear” would be impossible to sit through at feature length. Because when I call it excruciating, I actually mean that as a compliment as this show relentlessly bombards your senses for every one of its 30 minutes.

Like “Boiling Point,” it has a flawed, damaged protagonist – working as a chef is really not good for your health – in the shape of Carmy (Jeremy Allen White). He’s returned to Chicago to run his parents’ old sandwich shack, which is a long way from the fine dining restaurants in which he perfected his craft as a hugely promising young chef before his life crashed and burned.

The Candide figure this time around is new assistant Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, providing a much-needed sense of sanity for the viewer), who tries to help her boss bring some classic kitchen rules to the unruliest of places.

Tackling it in small portions make this eight-part drama eminently digestible – even if you will find yourself shouting “Yes, chef!” every time someone asks you a food-related question for days afterward.

Still, it sure beats the Wolt Jolt.

“The Menu” is in cinemas now, “Boiling Point” is available on Prime Video and “The Bear” is available to stream on Disney+.

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