Sexy, stressful, thrilling: how fictional chefs are about to take over TV
From US smash-hit kitchen drama The Bear to James Corden starring as a chef in Jez Butterworth’s forthcoming “relationship whodunnit”, you’re going to be watching a lot of ovens
Mon 22 Aug 2022 10.00 EDT
John Landgraf, the FX head who for years has been able to predict the fortunes of the TV industry with uncanny ability, recently said that this year will see “peak TV” finally peak. By his accounts, 357 scripted shows were launched in the first six months of 2022 alone, up 16% from a year ago. This, obviously, is more television than any one person can possibly watch. The good news is that with Netflix faltering and HBO Max intent on cratering before our very eyes, a contraction is due any minute now.
The bad news is that there are now more TV shows than ideas. It has become easier than ever to find premises and plots that have been unknowingly shared between different series, as you will see if you’re diligent enough at following the thread along one of this year’s hottest trends: the stressed-out chef show.
The biggest of these, and the one that looks destined to hog the headlines, is FX’s The Bear, soon to drop on Disney+ in the UK. The Bear has already made enough of a splash in the US to be simultaneously dubbed “the sexiest show of the year” and “the most stressful show of the year”.
UK viewers won’t have to watch for long to see how the latter tag came about. The Bear follows a down-at-heel fine-dining chef who, after his brother’s suicide, finds himself trying to shore up his family’s sandwich shop. Its big trick is finding the urgency in the mundane; despite the fact that, in the show’s signature kitchen scenes, we are just watching people make sandwiches to order, there’s a chest-bursting panic to it all. We constantly feel the stress of the job bearing down on its lead, played by Jeremy Allen White. Invariably, everything comes to a head later in the run, during a single-shot episode so frantic and stressful that it feels like a half-hour heart attack.
As for the sexiness? That’s a harder call. On paper – unless you have a shameful bread kink – The Bear isn’t a very sexy show at all. There are no Bridgerton-style romps, no will-they-won’t-they plots. But what it does have is hunger. The internet has already done a bang-up job of objectifying White who, with his floppy hair, sleepy eyes and brooding obsession, comes across as half Marco Pierre White and half Anthony Bourdain. But more than that, the whole show is wonderfully tangible. It’s unglamorous and unpretentious. You can feel the sweat prickle on the characters’ backs as they toil in the kitchen and the ache in their legs once they’ve finished a service. It’s raw and earthy, the kind of show that gets all the way under your fingernails. It’s really very good.
But just because The Bear seems destined to be the awards darling of next year, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only new scripted chef show around. Jez Butterworth’s much-anticipated Amazon show Mammals might bill itself as a “relationship whodunnit” – with Butterworth promising that everything that happens after the opening six minutes is a series-destroying spoiler – but it’s no secret that James Corden plays, you guessed it, a grumpy chef called Jamie.
These two shows come hot on the heels of Julia, Sky Atlantic’s drama series about Julia Child. Admittedly Julia tweaked the formula a little – Child was a cook rather than a chef, and one who made her fame by projecting undimmed outward warmth – but Sarah Lancashire’s performance is nonetheless one of quiet, careful obsession and ambition.
It isn’t hard to see why TV writers turn to chefs whenever they want to depict raised stakes. Professional cookery thrives on speed and precision, heat and ego. As depicted in The Bear, it requires you to keep your foot firmly planted on the job’s throat at all times, otherwise it will rise up and devour you. Done right, it’s absolutely thrilling. Then again, if stressed-out chefs aren’t your thing, something else is bound to come along before too long. This is the peak of “peak TV”, after all.