A version of this post originally appeared on September 6, 2019, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.
Before we dive into the big food TV season ahead, I’ve got a recommendation for a terrific show that quietly slipped into the Netflix library last month, plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news. Here’s what’s new and good:
Netflix’s sleeper hit competition show
American television producers could learn a lot from the Chefs’ Line, an Australian import whose first season is now streaming on Netflix. The food all looks good and the action is exciting from start to finish, but the real reason why this show works so well is that all of the chefs and judges are extremely knowledgeable about the dishes that are being prepared for the competition. There are no scenes of contestants panicking or comically fumbling their way through recipes they know nothing about, like you find in pretty much every major American culinary competition, especially the ones on major TV networks. Instead, every contestant on Chefs’ Line is fluent in the cuisines they are cooking, either because they grew up with these dishes or developed a taste for them — and the skills to cook them — later in life.
The show is broken down into five-episode chapters devoted to specific (though diverse swaths of) cuisines: Vietnamese, African, Turkish, Italian, Chinese, and Greek. The amateur chefs are cooking against members of a kitchen brigade from one of Australia’s best restaurants specializing in the selected cuisine. By the last round, the most accomplished home cook faces the chef/owner of that week’s restaurant in one final cook off.
A nice thing about this format is that each episode focuses on one just one dish, so you get to see all the steps that go into the preparation of that speciality, as opposed to a highlight reel, like you often see on culinary competition shows. The convention of pitting home cooks against professionals in a blind taste test also leads to some fun moments where the amateurs prevail over the restaurant chefs. And, in a refreshing break from the cooking competition norm, the professional chefs often impart tips and tricks — and occasionally spare pieces of cooking equipment — to the amateurs when they need a helping hand.
I wish that all cooking shows had hosts and judges who were as good at talking about food as the Chefs’ Line’s Mark Olive, Dan Hong, and Melissa Leong. Whereas other food show hosts might toss out jargon like, “This just didn’t have that wow factor,” or “Needs more oomph,” the stars of this series offer specific feedback on how these creations compare to the traditional preparations of each dish. The pho episode, in particular, is a great example of the level of specificity that goes into judging each round. “This was a chicken pho that was cooked in more of a beef pho style,” Hong says before his colleague digs into a bowl of noodles. “There was a lot of spices in there that they used, and they burned the ginger and onion off before they made the stock, which is not very reminiscent of a northern-style chicken pho, which would just use star anise and ginger.”
While the Chefs’ Line is a fairly breezy series, the show also represents two major trends in the cooking competition genre that I would love to see continue to flourish: Like its Netflix siblings the Great British Baking Show and Sugar Rush, this new competition completely eschews traditional reality TV villain tropes — there are no faux-hawked bad boy/girl chefs here, or scowling judges — and instead mines drama from the amateur chefs striving for their personal bests. The other innovation here is that Chefs’ Line spends most of its running time focusing on non-Eurocentric cooking. I can’t think of another English-language competition show that has been this devoted to recipes from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
My only quibble with the series is that the fifth episode of every culinary chapter is devoted to a completely unnecessary profile of the restaurants where the professional chefs work. If you’re planning a trip to Australia at some point in the near future, these clips might inform your dining itinerary, but otherwise, you can skip ‘em.
All 30 (!) half-hour episodes of the Chefs’ Line Season 1 are now streaming on Netflix.
In other entertainment news…
Have a great weekend everyone, and if you end up watching Chefs’ Line and a pho craving set in, consider checking out this recipe from Charles Phan of San Francisco’s celebrated Slanted Door.