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The last month has provided a bounty of prestige television—a ludicrously capacious bag full of them, even. Inside, you’ll find flat shoes for the subway, a lightning-rod series satirizing a murderous Beyoncé fan, the return of TV’s finest cannibalism-survivalist-mystery drama, a show based on Fleetwood Mac, Real Housewives getting wasted together in Thailand, a mustachioed soccer coach’s swan-song season, a lunch pail, and, of course, Succession.
Those are the obvious choices to mention among the glut of really good TV out right now. The source of that bag meme, Succession, especially stands out for premiering amidst outsized, hyped-up expectations and somehow meeting them. But fans of one particular genre of television are really feasting. (And not on the corpses of our best friends who froze in the woods, either.)
While it is never a bad time to be fans of food television—at any point in these glorious United States of America, it’s almost guaranteed that an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives or Chopped will be on, God bless us all—it’s particularly great right now. The genre’s three current standout series are each quite different too. (Variety is the spice of life! Food sayings!)
The crown jewel of these is Top Chef: World All-Stars. (Or is it “the Japanese Kobe steak” of these? I’m already exhausted trying to come up with food metaphors.)
This is, believe it or not, the 20th season of the Bravo culinary competition. Some people have spent their entire lives watching the same soap opera. Others have watched all of The Simpsons. There are even people who have inexplicably watched every season of Grey’s Anatomy. Yet I cannot judge them, for I have seen every episode of Top Chef and contend that not only is it still the best reality show on television, but that this all-stars iteration also might be the finest the show has ever been.
Top Chef has perfected the need for long-running reality series to escalate scale, stakes, and spectacle, as a means for staying both exciting and relevant. Yet it does this without becoming so ostentatious or convoluted that it loses the core tenets of what made the show great in the first place.
Not only is this an all-stars season, which the series has done several times in the past. But it is also an international all-stars season. The contestants are made up, for the first time, from winners and finalists of the franchise’s many global spinoffs. There are chefs from France, Brazil, Mexico, Jordan, Thailand, and…Kentucky.
It’s also the first time the entire season is taking place abroad, with the contestants gathering in London. One might instinctively scoff at the destination for this historic Top Chef outing being the home of British cuisine, which doesn’t have the most sterling reputation. But all it takes to get on board is for host Padma Lakshmi to explain the culinary esteem of the city once—such are her powers.
Top Chef has also unlocked the secret that it is far more gratifying to watch contestants be excellent and do well on the show than it is to watch them fail—which often on shows like these happens by entrapment, due to outrageous or nonsensical challenges. While we can’t taste the food ourselves, the series manages to telegraph unequivocally how masterful the work is. Instead of a cruel snickering at a contestant’s downfall, we’re treated to an intense emotional investment in the chefs. Their personalities and passions are given more space to shine because the baseline is already established: They’re damn good cooks.
Sylwia Stachyra, from Poland, delivers a weekly soliloquy about potatoes that makes me laugh harder than most comedies on TV right now, while her account of what it’s like to live near the Ukrainian border made me cry. (In fact, I have cried during every episode of this cooking competition.) The passion with which Brazil’s Luciana Berry speaks about her country’s food and the pride with which Jordan’s Ali Ghzawi serves his local recipes are inspiring.
There are plenty of delightful “melting pot” moments, like when the Congolese Italian chef Victoire Gouloubi attempts to pronounce the British pub dish “toad in a hole”—and then wrap her head around why anyone would ever eat it. And, while it’s certainly not the point of a show like this, there is an inordinate number of chef contestants I would very much like to kiss this season. Watching each week is an emotional, vibrant joy, especially with the knowledge that you are watching a specific kind of television that is executing at the top of its game.
Of course, I am not going to let an opportunity to rave about food television go by without mentioning our nation’s greatest hero, Guy Fieri.
It appears I am a sucker for an all-stars format, because that’s essentially what Tournament of Champions is. Now in its fourth season, the series has some of the most visible chefs from across the Food Network (and several Top Chef alums as well) compete in a March Madness-style bracket.
This is a tournament hosted by Guy Fieri; it relishes extremes and bigness as much as Top Chef thrives in its elegance and nuance. Yet the mark of a great show is knowing what it is, and pulling that off expertly, which is precisely what ToC does.
There’s an athleticism to the show, which lends itself perfectly to frontrunner and underdog narratives, thus lending the proceedings a certain emotionality. You’re crestfallen when one of your Food Network favorites loses, but you’ll brim with pride when a newcomer prepares the meal of their career and wins. It’s the closest thing to a sporting event that doesn’t feature Rihanna performing in the middle that I’ll watch.
Then there’s the quiet gem of TV food series, Restaurants at the End of the World. The National Geographic series is hosted by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish (I guess Top Chef is a common theme here), following her as she goes to extreme locales to learn how esteemed chefs there source and prepare their signature food in those extreme conditions.
There’s a surge in host-fronted food-travel series that take a classy, educational approach to a genre that, for a while, was overrun by bombastic personalities globe-trotting to gorge on gluttonous amounts of food. (I used to watch those but had to stop, because who really wants to see their typical Friday evening dramatized on TV?) The experience of watching a show like Restaurants at the End of the World and similar recent series like Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi and Searching for Italy With Stanley Tucci—all of which are obviously in the Anthony Bourdain tradition—is so much more rewarding.
It’s the difference between dining on a meal prepared with the finest, cleanest ingredients, versus processed empty calories. And at the moment, we’re all dining real well.
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