I know, we’re all sick of cooking competition shows. So many of them are gimmicky, relying on reality TV cheats like sleep deprivation or BDSM gear to spice things up. Yet within the hellscape that is competitive cooking television, one show embraces the artifice so wholeheartedly that you can’t help but love it. Chef & My Fridge is my favorite food show by a mile because of the balance it strikes between gastronomic appreciation and comedy — following the grand Asian variety show tradition of shit-talking as entertainment.
Luckily for viewers in the U.S., Netflix has a selection of subtitled episodes available to stream. Still skeptical? Check out this Q&A between me, a C&MF superfan, and you, my strawman friend, to help you decide.
So what is this show all about?
Chef & My Fridge often spells out its premise at the beginning of the episodes: “The project that turns your leftovers into an amazing dish! The best chefs in Korea will take care of your fridge!” Each episode brings in two celebrity guests (or duos) and their fridges, which are literally pulled out of their homes (sometimes with a crane!) and displayed in the studio. The guests run the gamut from KPOP legends like Big Bang and G-Dragon to actors and comedians who are big stars in South Korea. (By the way, Gordon Ramsay’s guest episode is amazing, but unfortunately, it’s not included in the translated batch. Fix that, Netflix!) The chefs, most of whom run one or more trendy restaurants around Seoul, are tasked with making dishes for the guests out of the contents of their fridges, using their pro skills to spin instant noodles into culinary gold. Oh yeah, and they each only get 15 minutes to cook.
The show, originally known as Please Take Care of My Refrigerator in South Korea, first aired on the JTBC network in 2014. Since then, the series has been chugging along uninterrupted, currently clocking in at 183 episodes. The makeup of the chef panel has shifted a lot, though they’ve maintained a balance of interesting culinary specialities: Chinese, French, Japanese, Italian, and even Bulgarian cuisines are all represented. (Despite the looseness of the casting, all of the chefs have been men.) Each of the episodes are two-parters, with the focus on one fridge at a time.
Isn’t this basically Chopped?
Chopped is a close comparison, but there are some key differences. First, rather than being subject to the vicious whims of whatever shadow figure is putting together those ingredient boxes, the chefs on this show have to deal with something even more arcane: the habits of overworked single celebrities, many of whom are definite failures at adulting. Sometimes that means they only have soju and microwaveable rice bowls to work with. Other times, that could mean a bounty of truffles.
Second, while the competitors on Chopped get time for each of their courses, the chefs on C&MF who choose to make more than one dish have to do it all within the 15-minute timeframe. Sometimes that means a competing chef will task one of the onlookers with helping him whisk, or open instant sauce packets — a humanitarian move they dub “calling in the UNICHEF.” The time limit also makes the chefs who do opt for courses even more impressive. During the anniversary special, fine dining veteran Lee Chan Oh memorably made a whopping four courses for a “three-Michelin-star” challenge.
And finally, the competitors don’t win jack — in one episode, the hosts fess up to the fact that the stars that the chefs wear to signify their wins are cheapies from a craft store. When nothing but bragging rights are at stake, the atmosphere is a lot more fun, and all of the incessant ridicule among the chefs and hosts feels more lighthearted than mean.
Tell me more about this ridicule. Just how wild does it get?
During the actual competitions, the non-competing chefs and hosts transform into a peanut gallery, both rooting for and laughing at the guys suffering for their amusement. If anything burns, they make a big to-do over it, and a host might even come over with a GoPro and yell to the guest, “Hey, do you like burned food?” One of the highlights of the competitions takes place at the T-five-minutes mark, when one of the hosts will run over to the kitchen with a spoon and taste a bit of what’s cooking. Rather than the kindly advice that Tom Colicchio might give to a Top Chef contestant, the host might just laugh and proclaim, “Tastes bad!” It’s brutal, but all the chefs take it in stride.
In this way, the show is typical of East Asian television, which often incorporates live commentary in some form, whether it’s pop-up text or faces reacting in real-time or the relatively low-key panel in the Terrace House series. For shows like this, the over-the-top reactions and the layers of humor they add to the actual content are an integral part of the aesthetic.
What’s the deal with the fridges?
The fridges are the main draw! Haven’t you ever been curious to know what pop stars eat? The show indulges a level of voyeurism that many of us might be too ashamed to admit to, but they go so far as to stick GoPros on the shelves so you can even read the expiration dates. There’s some intriguing stuff in there, like custom mochi sent in by fans, mom’s lovingly packaged banchan selection, and sometimes even bags of putrid salad greens. Some of them contain surprises that will delight you even if you don’t know the celebrities. For example, after admitting their addiction to jokbal — braised pig’s trotters — members from the KPOP girl group TWICE revealed a fridge full of pig offal, like hearts, livers, and lungs.
Why’s this show so goofy? What’s with the sound effects? I thought Asian food was supposed to be sophisticated.
The design of the show is typical of Korean variety television, with frantic splash text paired with sound effects and really bad-but-good overlays, like sweet flames around a pissed-off chef or a Hulk bod crudely drawn over another guy. It’s almost like if the doodles you drew in your old yearbook get converted into a legitimate television experience. The breakdown of seriousness for the sake of ramping up a joke or emotion is actually kind of refreshing, as if the show is commenting along with you.
This sense of irreverence is especially refreshing to me personally because of how Asian cookery is currently treated in a reverential, borderline exoticized way in Western media: they’re no Jiros, and there’s very little talk about how they’ve suffered for years to learn their craft. Save for Kim Poong, who’s actually a webtoon artist, these chefs are pros, but they’re not above dancing like jellyfish and/or taking the piss out of each other while cooking amazing dishes from whatever random drinking snacks their celebrity guests bring with them. They cackle as they turn out ugly omelets and overdone arancini. They’re actually relatable as people.
But how good could the food be?
Man, amazing. The kinds of dishes the chefs crank out are unbelievable, and the way they make do with the random stuff in people’s fridges is inspiring. Some of the culinary highlights include Choi Hyun Seok’s crispy pork heart rice bowl, Lee Yeon Bok’s fried Chinese flatbread with scallions and smoked chicken, and Lee Chan Oh’s savory oatmeal with granola-crusted pork belly. At its core, the show is absolutely about how, with good technique, you can really make something good out of anything, even the random garbage you’ve been pushing to the back of your fridge for the past month.
If you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend Netflix’s “Best of 2014 to 2016” collection. If you want to start with some real bangers, episodes 11 and 12 are great and feature both virtuosic cooking by the chefs (including churros made with a mayonnaise bottle!!) and unrepentant flirting from the guests. Together, they’re a good intro to the series. And while it might be tempting to order out while watching the show, it may feel more fitting to pull something together from what you’ve got in your fridge: a dolled-up cup of instant noodles, a savory pancake made from odds and ends, or maybe something entirely new.