There’s an incredible plate of food sitting right in front of you. Perfect cuts of beef perched atop elegantly arranged greens, butressed by Rubenesque but elegant helpings of starch. You salivate. Except this plate of food is not for you. It’s for Gordon Ramsay and he’s on your TV and you’re stuck here in your living room eating leftover take-out. And yet, despite the fact that you’re unable to smell or taste the food on MasterChef, in the midst of its 13th season, you’re watching it as though it’s totally possible that Ramsey will lean over and offer you a bite.
We’ve long since passed the peak of food TV, which includes competition shows like MasterChef and the ever-popular Top Chef, as well as aspirational documentary series like Chef’s Table and Mind of a Chef. Anthony Bourdain reveals the cuisine of a new place weekly on Parts Unknown, which launched its ninth season in April with a journey to Los Angeles. Americans vie for BBC iPlayer access to follow The Great British Bake-Off, a gentle reality show that makes you really want to the learn the difference between various types of flour. You can binge all sorts of food shows on Netflix. Even OG TV chef Emeril Lagasse tried his hand at a streaming Amazon Prime series called Eat The World last year. Everywhere you look there’s something delicious – and none of it will ever touch your tongue.
So why do we watch if it’s very likely we’ll never taste this food? A travel series like Parts Unknown is one thing, especially if you have access to one of the discussed locales, but are we obsessed with MasterChef because we’re genuinely interested in eating the food? It’s safe to say that MasterChef Junior is popular because those kids are really damn cute and it’s amazing to watch a diminutive seven-year-old craft a perfect Beef Wellington. But what are we hoping to gain from watching the creation of food we’ll never eat?
There’s the drama, of course. With MasterChef, it’s thrilling to watch Ramsey shout at contestants. You don’t know how to properly fry an egg? Well, you better fucking learn. And now Ramsey’s got two reality competition shows with The F Word being added to FOX’s line-up alongside MasterChef. That drama is great and it can sustain entire seasons (remember Ilan vs. Marcel in Top Chef season two?). You can watch these shows just to see whether that obnoxious braggart will get his due from the soft-spoken mom who, it turns out, can cook geoduck better than he can. But aren’t we also watching because of the food itself?
Aspiring home cooks can learn plenty from demonstration shows, like those shown endlessly on Food Network every morning. There’s also a lot to learn from a series like Top Chef (beyond the assentation that you should never, ever rely on a pressure cooker). If you pay close attention you can absorb knives skills, plating techniques and which sorts of pans work best for certain situations. You can learn what the hell ras el hanout is and that if you buy some your husband will think you are some kind of brilliant chicken chef. You’ll know that when someone says “This isn’t properly seasoned” that just means it needs more salt.
There is also something inherently soothing to watching people prepare food – even when there might be some drama involved. That comfort, which arrives when we see a process in motion that will eventually lead to the dinner table, is at the heart of Chef’s Table. It’s fascinating to see the innovation of chefs like Dominique Crenn and Ana Ros, and it’s even more so to see how their establishments run so precisely. It’s aspirational, too. You could save up your dough and book a table at Ros’s restaurant in Slovenia or at Faviken, which is completely inconvenient to every airport in Sweden. You could plan your entire next vacation around Moscow’s White Rabbit. But chances are you won’t taste any of that food. You’ll watch it be made, learn the origins of the ingredients and the inspiration of how they all come together as one, and see other people savor the perfectly crafted bites. And that’s okay.
When you’re sad or frustrated or when a huge tragedy shakes the core of humanity, food TV is consistently there. Although food is always political, you won’t see our country’s current schism on the plate. Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, another gentle competition series, can carry you through a depressive funk. “It’s going to be okay, just look at this amazing cake,” it says. If you rewatch some old season of Top Chef (best one is Austin) you’ll feel the dedication of the human spirit. These chefs, who are allowing us to watch them in their kitchens and in the kitchens of others, remind us that hard work and artistic vision does pay off. That’s not something you have to taste to understand.
The good side of human nature is revealed in food TV. We’re all united by this appreciation for what we put in our mouths. We all just want to eat that thing on the screen. Gordon Ramsay may swear and yell, but even he knows that life feels just a little bit easier when we watch someone cook an absolutely perfect steak – even if we can’t eat it.