Compared to the couple of years preceding it, food TV got a lot of mainstream attention in 2022. That’s thanks in large part to The Bear, the FX series starring Jeremy Allen White as a hot chef trying to save his family’s Chicago restaurant, which inspired countless thirsty memes while earning critical acclaim after its release in June. But outside of this one scripted success, food TV was actually pretty bleak this year.
In the world of non-scripted food TV, things really got weird. Instead of focusing on talented chefs making great dishes, TV producers decided to push chefs to the extreme, subjecting them to increasingly bizarre cooking conditions. There was Next Level Chef, the Gordon Ramsay-hosted competition show in which contestants were forced to contend with their kitchens being swapped out while furiously trying to win $250,000 and a mentorship with Ramsay and his co-hosts, Richard Blais and Nyesha Arrington. There was the travesty that was Easy-Bake Battle, a total bait-and-switch by Netflix that led viewers to believe it involved home cooks trying to bake cupcakes inside a beloved childhood toy: But there were no Easy-Bake ovens on this show, only boring real ovens, cheesy jokes, and mediocre recipes for Philly cheesesteak wontons. And while we were all charmed by the lighthearted mystery of Is It Cake?, a Netflix show in which contestants are asked to determine whether an object is as it appears or is actually made of cake, that formula wore pretty thin over just a few episodes. There’s only so many times you can be “shocked” to learn that the apple you’re looking at isn’t really an apple.
Competition cooking shows were generally pretty bland this year. The Julia Child Challenge, in which eight home cooks set out to recreate the legendary chef’s most famous recipes, barely moved the needle. Alex vs. America, starring Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli as she took on home chefs from across the country, is really just a 2022 rehash of Beat Bobby Flay, a show that is still, somehow, on the air. Guy’s Chance of a Lifetime feels especially bleak, considering that the winners here only get the opportunity to run one franchise of Fieri’s Chicken Guy! chain, not pursue their own creative dreams at a restaurant of their own. This season of Top Chef, set in Houston, didn’t move the needle much, likely a welcome calm for the show’s producers following the harassment allegations that surfaced after Austin chef Gabe Erales won season 18.
And then, of course, there was the Great British Bake Off, once a critical darling with truly devoted fans. Now in its 13th season, this year’s iteration of the series landed with a resounding thud. Its demise has been a slow burn, over the past five seasons or so, but this year really exemplified why Bake Off has become so difficult to watch. The challenges are either boring and repetitive or absolutely impossible to complete in the amount of time given to the contestants, co-host Matt Lucas is maddeningly annoying, and there was the unspeakable fiasco that was “Mexico Week.” (This week, Lucas blessedly announced that he would be leaving the show, so maybe there’s hope for Bake Off in 2023.)
This year’s best food TV shows haven’t actually been about the preparation of food at all. Tembi Locke’s From Scratch, a scripted series based on her own story of falling in love with a chef in Italy, is equal parts tear-jerking and mouthwatering in its depiction of their tragic romance and Italian cuisine. Even with The Bear, the central interest in the show wasn’t in Italian beef sandwiches, the restaurant’s signature offering, it was in everyone’s obsession with hot chefs.
And sure, there were some good food TV shows this year. Chef’s Table: Pizza is peak David Gelb, and who doesn’t want to watch beautiful shots of incredible pizzas being tossed and baked? Be My Guest with Ina Garten was also fine, because anything with Ina Garten’s chic and witty vibe is watchable. Maybe it’s just that food TV can’t compete with the unrelenting chaos that was living in 2022, but it seemed this year like producers in the genre just decided to rest on their most boring laurels, serving up the same-old, same-old, instead of doing anything really new and exciting. Perhaps 2023 will bring more compelling television, but failing that, at least we’ll have season two of The Bear.
Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.
Disclosure: Eater has a video series, Plateworthy, hosted and produced by Nyesha Arrington.