Netflix’s wonderful Street Food focuses on the human aspect of ordinary food

I try not to get too pedantic about TV — watch whatever you want; television is personal, and it should be fun — but I do have one firmly held opinion, which is that competitive cooking shows suck.

Cooking is fun. Cooking is nourishing. Cooking is the thing I do to feel creative, to feel like I made something. You cook for someone to show them you love them, to bring delight to them in a wonderfully visceral way (at least, that’s the ideal scenario). Taste, smell, texture, color: Cooking is sensual.

It’s also universal. Everybody either cooks or has been cooked for. Everybody’s got the best way to make chili or chocolate chip cookies. We all have a memory of something we loved to eat as a child: Grandma’s potato salad; brownies from a box fresh out of the oven; the chicken soup that warmed up cold fingers and toes after playing in the snow.

And when you’re eating a fine meal prepared by someone else — or even a simple meal, like some roasted vegetables and a piece of bread slathered in butter — you can, and should, admire the craftsmanship and creativity. Art is meant to be shared.

Competitive cooking shows, though, mess this all up. They turn cooking into a speed sport, a recreational activity for gawking fans and armchair refs. I don’t like it, and I think it’s bad.

A scene from Food Network’s Chopped.

I just cannot get on board.
Food Network

Once in a while, I watch a competitive cooking show, usually when I find myself in a hotel with access to the Food Network. I’ll never forget watching an episode of what I think was Chopped, in which a contestant was handicapped relative to the other contestants by being tasked with only cooking with cheese “harvested” from other cheese-related foods: cheese scraped off a pizza, cheese extracted from grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s not cooking, that’s sadism, and I’m gagging thinking about it.

I recognize I’m in the minority, and that I can’t really defend this with much more than my feelings, and if you are a Top Chef aficionado, I won’t hold it against you. People love competitive cooking shows; they turned the Food Network into a juggernaut. People probably learn things about cooking from these shows, and maybe some people get interested in cooking because of them.

I know this is bound to be an unpopular opinion; I know art competitions (singing, dancing, fashion) are very popular. I don’t like any of those very much either, but at least they’re making things that are destined, for most of us, to be experienced through a TV screen.

There’s just something inherently unnatural about turning this sensual, communal art form into a vehicle for competition, with little connection on the viewer’s part to the tastes or smells or textures.

That’s what I believe: Cooking shouldn’t be a spectator sport; everyone can cook, even if it’s just mac and cheese from a box, and everyone probably should. It’s good for us, as something kind of primal and centering. Competitive cooking shows, by contrast, make it look very hard, and encourage us to outsource food-making to pros, lest we look ridiculous. On a competitive cooking show, cooking looks like an elite pursuit, the purview only of experts.

Luckily, there are alternatives.

Okay, so some cooking competitions are good

I hear you saying, “But what about the Great British Bake Off?”

There are two shows I make an exception for; that’s one of them. What’s so lovely about the Great British Bake Off is that although there’s a winner, the show is less about winning than about the creativity and the process. The focus is on amateur bakers, and they support one another, praising each other’s work. After watching Bake Off, I actually want to go try to bake. They make it look challenging but rewarding, and the goal isn’t to knock people out of competition; it’s to make the best thing you can make.

There’s an American version of Bake Off, but the show that I think of as its American cousin is Netflix’s Nailed It! (which returns for its third season on May 17). At first blush, Nailed It! seems like it should be a mean show, based on a sarcastic internet meme that makes fun of people’s attempts to do complicated things. The premise: Take three pretty lousy amateur home bakers, bring them into a studio with all the trappings of a competitive baking show, and ask them to recreate absurdly complicated novelty baked goods, like cake pops that look like aliens, or a cake in the shape of Donald Trump’s head.

A failed attempt to make a fancy novelty cake on Netflix’s Nailed It.

Make a novelty cake that looks like a barbecue! Or … not.

But the joke in Nailed It! is that everyone knows this is a totally ridiculous thing to ask of the competitors, including the competitors, and turns it into something more like a fondant-and-frosting party. The judges (the delightful comedian Nicole Byers, famous chef Jacques Torres, and then some totally random celebrity or football player) are at pains to say something nice about everyone’s efforts, and though there is a rather sizable prize of $10,000 at stake, there’s no real rhyme or reason to who wins. At the end of two rounds, everyone takes a selfie and goes home.

Both Bake Off and Nailed It! are mainly about having fun, trying your best, and enjoying yourself along the way. Which is exactly what makes home cooking so fun, and why the “competition” aspect of those shows is secondary to the actual cooking.

And I think both of those shows, beloved of fans, put the emphasis back on what the chefs and bakers are doing — being creative — rather than on winning and prevailing.

That’s why it’s been interesting for me to watch another kind of cooking show grow, particularly on streaming platforms. I speak, of course, of the food documentary.

Food documentaries show us the world — and ourselves

While Food Network has migrated toward competition-heavy programming, Netflix in particular has tended to emphasize shows that sensuously delight in food and the people who make it, spiritual heirs to shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.

This week, in fact, the new show Street Food premieres on Netflix. A few minutes into the first episode, the show’s creative pedigree becomes clear: This is a series from the same people who make Chef’s Table, which spotlights chefs around the world, exploring their journey toward becoming renowned as well as looking up close at what they do in the kitchen. I’ll never cook at a four-star restaurant, but watching the show, I start to see how they became the artists they are today, and get ideas for what I might try to do or eat. It’s an encouragement to experiment and take risks at the stove.

That series was born partly out of the success of the hit 2012 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which profiled a sushi chef with a tiny restaurant and explored the future of his business, as well as sushi more broadly.

Street Food takes the same tactic to, well, the streets. The first episode, “Bangkok, Thailand,” manages in one hour to show how important street food is to the social and cultural landscape of Bangkok, and to let one of Bangkok’s most celebrated street food cooks — a woman named Jay Fai, who still cooks in her open-air stall in the city — tell her own story. Her spins on traditional Thai foods earned her a Michelin star.

The first season of Street Food, new on Netflix, travels all over Asia to tell the story of street food.

The first season of Street Food, new on Netflix, travels all over Asia to tell the story of street food.

You can’t possibly watch Street Food and not get hungry. The first season covers cities all over Asia, mostly in the Pacific Rim. And while the chefs of Chef’s Table often get to cook in fancy restaurants with white tablecloths for well-heeled guests, the chefs of Street Food are cooking for the people, retaining the cultural memories of their country. The filmmakers’ attention to the beauty of their work redirects our expectations of where “good food” can be found.

Netflix has done a good job of finding and cultivating shows that have that same humanistic attention to the cultural and social importance of food; the way that great food can be found anywhere, even in our own homes; why having an adventurous palate actually can make us less insular, more interesting people. The focus is still on being the best — it’s just that now, the food is its own reward, and the people who make and eat it are the focus.

Samin Nosrat’s wonderful Salt Fat Acid Heat explores the ways different cultures use the same taste palates we all have — something we all have in common — in all kinds of ways. Her cheerful, encouraging, endlessly curious presence in the show makes it all seem doable.

David Chang’s Ugly Delicious takes a different tack, exploring a kind of cuisine (pizza, barbecue, fried rice) in each episode, letting chefs argue about what makes it great. It is thoroughly irreverent and refreshingly demystifying. (In the pizza episode, Chang — the world-renowned chef behind Momofuku — goes to a Domino’s to see how they make pizza so consistently and quickly, and ends up going on delivery runs.)

Netflix’s Ugly Delicious focuses on what makes ordinary foods extraordinary, all over the world.

Netflix’s Ugly Delicious focuses on what makes ordinary foods extraordinary, all over the world.

Netflix doesn’t have a monopoly on these more documentary-style shows, of course, though they seem to have invested real resources in the form. Hulu, for instance, is where you can find The Wine Show, in which actor Matthew Goode and his actor friends — Matthew Rhys in the first season, James Purefoy in the second — drink wine in the wine-producing parts of Europe and learn a lot about how and why wines taste different, and what wine and wine-tasting means along the way.

Look, if you still would rather watch people sweat and holler and win prizes and participate in unnecessarily ginned-up challenges — and, oh yeah, cook — I can’t stop you. TV is personal; TV is supposed to be fun, whatever that means to you.

But at least consider supplementing all that adrenaline with some exploration of what cooks around the world are making, or what makes fights over the best fried chicken special and interesting. Watch a street chef in Bangkok make a perfect crab omelet. Get hungry for something good. And then, maybe, get cooking.