This is the perfect weekend to catch up on the best food-related TV shows of the year. Last week, I offered my list of the top food films of 2017, and here, now, are my picks for the best TV episodes on the major networks, streaming services, and social media channels. It was a good year for food TV, and I’m convinced that 2018 will be even better. Without any further ado…
5) Samurai Gourmet, “Mackerel in the Morning”
This Japanese-language show about the culinary adventures of a retired company man is always entertaining, but a handful of episodes, like this one, are surprisingly moving.
In “Mackerel in the Morning,” our main man Takeshi Kasumi misses his train home after a day trip to visit a buddy, and decides to spend the night at a seaside inn. Midway through the set breakfast in the inn’s humble dining room, Kasumi is reminded of a trip he took in his youth, during which he first started to embrace his love of food. We now see him at the other side of adulthood eating fresh fish and feeling like a teenager again.
If you haven’t yet dipped your toe into this sweet and at times very funny Netflix series, “Mackerel in the Morning” is a great place to start.
Stream it on: Netflix
4) Parts Unknown, “Los Angeles”
Although he’s known as one of cable TV’s greatest quipmasters, in 2017, Anthony Bourdain let a lot of other people do the talking.
A great example of this new side of Bourdain’s TV persona is the Season 9 premiere of his CNN travel show Parts Unknown, in which Bourdain gets a tour of Latino LA from the artists, activists, and thinkers who got their starts in the community and continue to help it grow. Tony’s dining itinerary is a mashup of new school and old school LA establishments, with stops at barbacoa specialist Gish Bac, Ray Garcia’s downtown hot spot Broken Spanish, and Olvera Street taquito legend Cielito Lindo.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the last few years about how Los Angeles is one of the greatest food cities in America. There’s no denying that, but it’s refreshing to see a tour of the city that eschews all the hipster hangouts and Hollywood canteens and instead celebrates a community that often gets overlooked in surveys of this great American metropolis.
3) Master of None, “Amarsi Un Po”
In Season 2 of their hit Netflix show, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang take some major risks with storytelling — and it pays off, big time. “Thanksgiving” is the masterpiece. “I Love New York” is the narrative game-changer. And “Amarsi Un Po” is the episode that cements Ansari and Yang’s status as television auteurs. It’s basically a feature-length movie masquerading as a TV episode.
After the opening credits — a long shot of Manhattan at night, filmed high above the city — Dev (Ansari) and Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) test the boundaries of their friendship over several enchanting days in New York, full of food and wine at some of the city’s best restaurants. They kiss at a rock club. They ride the train upstate to Storm King Art Center. They get snowed in at Dev’s apartment and make pasta. Dev dreams about Francesca plunging her hand into his chest and ripping out his beating heart. And the episode ends with an tense relationship conversation as they’re circling Manhattan in a helicopter.
Is it indulgent? Maybe. Is it a bit longer than it needs to be? Perhaps. But from start to finish, “Amarsi Un Po” is unlike anything else that aired on TV this year.
Stream it on: Netflix
2) Mind of a Chef, “Classics”
One of the biggest surprises of this series’ sixth season is seeing how Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien draws inspiration from so many different sources.
There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to what he likes, aside from things that might be called “the genuine article” — distinctive, authentic, and delicious. And in episode seven of Mind of a Chef, Bowien takes a tour of the “classic” New York restaurants that inspire him, including Peter Luger, Emilio’s Ballato, and Punjabi, all of which are famous for relatively straightforward dishes. “You can’t buy taste,” Bowien says in between bites of a Peter Luger steak. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Midway through this episode, Bowien also demonstrates how to make his one bona fide classic dish, the Chongqing chicken wings at Mission Chinese Food. It’s a recipe that he’s been tweaking for the last seven years, but now, he’s got everything exactly where he wants it to be.
The message, it seems, is that if you want to build a classic, you’ve got to trust your gut and zero in on the thing you love.
Stream it on: Facebook Watch
1) Chef’s Table: TIE “Nancy Silverton” & “Jeong Kwan”
In Season 3 of Netflix’s documentary series, David Gelb and company switched up their very familiar style by focusing on two chefs who don’t work in fine-dining restaurants or compete in the often elitist (and sexist) worlds of the 50 Best list and and Michelin guides.
Nancy Silverton, the co-founder of La Brea Bakery and chef/co-owner of the Mozza restaurants in LA, has been one of the driving forces of California cuisine for the last four decades. At 63, she’s still working through fresh ideas in her restaurants.
Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist nun who cooks for her colleagues at a monastery in a rural region of South Korea. “I make food as a meditation,” she says. “I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.” Chefs like Eric Ripert are amazed by her vegan cuisine, and yet Kwan has no desire to bring her food to any sort of formal restaurant setting.
Both chefs are iconoclasts who find joy in the act of cooking and serving others. These episodes offer a refreshing break from the narrative that’s so often repeated in series like Chef’s Table: the cocky virtuoso with a checkered past finds redemption in the kitchen by pushing harder and harder. Hopefully, 2018 will feature more programs about chefs like Silverton and Kwan, who embody the best traits of this line of work — it’s the perfect time to get some new faces on food TV.
Stream it on: Netflix
Whether you’re hitting the town or hitting the couch, I hope you have a great New Year’s Eve and Day. I’ll see you in 2018.