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The Key Ingredient in Netflix's Food Shows Is the Amateur Chef

On series like Great British Baking Show and Nailed It!, the scrappy, self-taught kitchen hopeful reigns supreme.
  • Ingredients and dishes from Cooked With Cannabis, Crazy Delicious, and High on the Hog (Graphic: Primetimer)
    Ingredients and dishes from Cooked With Cannabis, Crazy Delicious, and High on the Hog (Graphic: Primetimer)

    In 2018, Chicago chef Joe Flamm was crowned the winner of Top Chef: Colorado. The meal that clinched his victory was an ambitious Italian feast consisting of tortellini en brodo, ribeye with a smoked bone marrow sauce, and a wagyu-dusted play on tonno vitellato — a showcase of pure culinary prowess.

    That same year, social media coordinator and amateur baker Elena Timman won the debut episode of Netflix’s Nailed It! with what was meant to be a Sylvia Weinstock-inspired wedding cake. The prize-winning cake’s prevailing components: it was upright, edible, and bore a texture that the judges deemed “OK.” While a greatly limited skill set would have likely gotten Flamm laughed out of the kitchen, it was enough to earn Timman $10,000 and heartfelt praise from the judging panel, which included the late Weinstock herself.

    Top Chef continues to prevail in the food TV space, thanks to a dedicated fandom with a keen interest in the fast-paced lives of world-class chefs. Despite this, there are always parts of the experience that the audience can’t truly relate to, unless the viewer in question is a fellow highly trained culinary master themselves. Many everyday viewers could marathon season after season of the likes of Chopped or Iron Chef and still not fully connect with what’s unfolding on the screen beyond the overt drama because in this world, the competing chefs are considered the experts and we are the guests. Our passion, no matter how intense, can only get us so far.

    Nailed It! sits at the opposite end of the food TV spectrum from Top Chef, trading the Michelin star-worthy prestige for rough-yet-relatable kitchen disasters. Its near-instantaneous success illuminated a public desire for more shows reminiscent of its majorly popular predecessor Great British Baking Show (as it’s known in the U.S.) — kinder, more accessible points of entry into the culinary world that felt as engaging as they were celebratory.

    With every prolapsed cake and underbaked cookie, Nailed It! set a new kind of competitive stage for the aspiring cook while reframing what potential looked like. In host Nicole Byer’s kitchen, teachers, lawyers, and stay-at-home parents replaced veteran sous chefs and patissiers, prioritizing a passion for food over formal training. With that, the audience was empowered to root for someone that was more of a reflection of themselves: an everyday person with a love for food and a willingness to try, fail, and try again.

    It was one of many highlights for Netflix in 2018, which Eater dubbed “the year that Netflix ruled Food TV” thanks to celebrated efforts like David Chang’s Ugly Delicious and Samin Nosrat’s endearing travelogue Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The eclectic collection of high-concept competitions and celeb-led docuseries set a foundation for even bolder entries that injected culture, creativity, and even cannabis into the traditionally more buttoned-up category. More than that, it blew open the doors to this once closed-off world of food TV and democratized the culinary world in a way that we hadn’t seen from a major network or platform outside of independent content creation.

    Over the years, GBBS and Nailed It! have led what’s evolved into a concerted look at the home chef — a person who didn’t always don an official-looking white coat, but still cooked with some level of technique and a working knowledge of flavor. Best Leftovers Ever! championed waste-free cooking by tasking competitors with reimagining leftover scraps into tantalizing new dishes. In 2022, Queer Eye’s resident culinary “expert” Antoni Porowski tested home cooks’ abilities to develop quick and easy showstoppers in Easy-Bake Battle, while restaurateur Jordan Andino blended the fast-paced worlds of cooking and auctioning in Cook At All Costs, where cooks bid on high-demand ingredients to impress some of the food scene’s biggest stars.

    While the occasional food professional tried their hand in each arena, the scrappier, usually self-taught kitchen hopeful reigned supreme. And through it all, the viewer was fed useful lessons in how to put what they were seeing into practice within their own homes, whether that was the competing Easy-Bake Battle cooks offering their own tips for easy food prep directly to the camera or Best Leftovers Ever! showcasing how to turn residual potatoes into pasta. The messaging was clear: With enough imagination and a can-do spirit, anyone could be considered a great culinary mind — or, at least, they could demonstrate the potential to be great.

    However, when the streamer calls on the knife-wielding professionals to compete, it doesn't always relegate them to a five-star kitchen (except this year, when it literally did just that for Five Star Chef). This was especially the case in 2020 with the premieres of Cooked With Cannabis and Crazy Delicious, both of which challenged conventional culinary standards to highlight the future of food. Sure, they were creative, but they were also culturally relevant markers of the time.

    Cooked With Cannabis, co-hosted by weed connoisseurs Kelis and chef Leather Storrs, tapped into evolving attitudes toward marijuana during a time when state recreational laws were rapidly changing. Each challenge, with themes ranging from event catering to futuristic predictions, tested the ingenuity of forward-thinking chefs while showcasing the flexibility and lucrative potential of infused cuisine.

    For UK delight Crazy Delicious, which filmed on a magical, almost entirely edible forest-like set, fantasy was the competition’s main ingredient, borrowing elements from sci-fi, art, and mythology to push contestants to conceptualize original, extraordinary fare. It fit interestingly with Netflix’s growing fantasy portfolio, which at the time expanded to include an influx of animation, international sci-fi, and live-action remakes of popular anime like Bleach and Death Note. While it only lasted one season, much like Cooked With Cannabis, it remains a token of the streamer’s attempt at bridging the gap between their more niche audiences by offering something that was altogether new.

    Netflix hasn’t limited its appetite to just competition. When the platform journeys outside of the sterile test kitchen, it widens its lens to offer broader peeks into how different cultures impact our wider understanding of food. Obviously, it can’t be credited for popularizing the subgenre — the late Anthony Bourdain made a second career of bringing audiences into communities around the globe to experience different cuisine. But Netflix did robustly expand on the idea to allow those same cultures to share their relationship with food on their terms.

    In High on the Hog, which returns November 22 for a second season, food writer Stephen Satterfield tours the vast history of African-American cuisine to share a deeply emotional narrative of perseverance, belonging and innovation. While the four-part inaugural season broke down the mechanics of certain beloved dishes like macaroni and cheese, it took greater care to delve into the history behind the fare, much of which began with the inventiveness of enslaved people.

    K Food Show also dives into the versatility of its mealtime staples, first with A Nation of Broth and later with followup seasons A Nation of Banchan and A Nation of Kimchi. Across the series, some of the core tenants of Korean dining, along with the hands that prepare them, are reverently explored not only for their taste, but for their roles in shaping the overall culture. And these sojourns would sometimes add depth to burgeoning food trends. At the height of the widespread interest in street food, the Street Food series paid homage to the stewards of Latin America and Asia’s most popular and accessible comfort food, like Pato Rodriguez of Buenos Aires’ Las Chicas De Las Tres and Bangkok street food legend Jay Fai.

    When it comes to our understanding of dining and food creativity, the trained chef holds a lot of power. After all, their innovations determine the latest food trends, feed culinary journalism, and fuel a lot of our favorite restaurants. Naturally, there will always be a deep-seated public curiosity for their work and, as a result, dedicated broadcast space for us to voyeuristically experience their adventures. But the work and inspiration of today’s top chefs don’t exist in a vacuum. Their connection to food is heavily impacted by history, nature, and the trial and error of daring cooks within a diverse array of communities. Netflix’s boldest experiment in culinary TV may be turning the spotlight to the everyday people that make food so special.

    Shannon Miller is a cultural critic, editor, and podcaster who focuses on the societal impact of TV, film, music and advertising.

    TOPICS: The Great British Baking Show, Best Leftovers Ever!, Cooked with Cannabis, Crazy Delicious, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, K Food Show: A Nation of Banchan, K Food Show: A Nation of Broth, Nailed It!, Top Chef, Ugly Delicious, David Chang, Nicole Byer