HBO Max cooking show featuring brunch a real joy

Can the Most Hated Meal Be Redeemed? ‘The Big Brunch’ Says Yes.

Contempt for brunch is persistent, but a new show on HBO Max approaches the meal with ambition and optimism.

    Three people dig into brunch plates at a restaurant table.
    From left, Dan Levy, Sohla El-Waylly and Will Guidara tasting dishes on “The Big Brunch,” a new cooking competition series.Credit…HBO

    By Tejal Rao

    Published Nov. 7, 2022Updated Nov. 8, 2022

    Cooking  Feast on recipes, food writing and culinary inspiration from Sam Sifton and NYT Cooking. Get it sent to your inbox.

    I’d watched enough “Sex and the City” in my 20s to see how brunch could give a group of friends, and the episodic structure they lived in, a leisurely rhythm. But I was a cook — my rhythm was determined by a schedule pinned to a corkboard outside my chef’s office. If it put me on brunch service, it felt like I’d done something wrong: There was nothing more frivolous, tedious or hellish than brunch.

    “Chefs hate brunch,” William Grimes wrote in The New York Times in 1998, the year “Sex and the City” aired. “The ‘B’ word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks,” wrote Anthony Bourdain a year later in an essay for The New Yorker. He was building on an unrelenting anti-brunch sentiment that’s existed for about as long as the meal itself — and still does.

    A blond woman speaks at a restaurant table. Across from them sit a blonde in an orange shiny top and a brunette in a strapless dress. A small girl sits sadly at the head of the table.
    The glamorous image of brunch on “Sex and the City” was at odds with the rising criticism of brunch among chefs and food writers in the late 1990s.Credit…HBO / New Line Cinema

    Earlier this year, in the FX series “The Bear,” Carmy and Sydney were trying to reestablish lines of communication after a break in their fragile partnership as chef and sous-chef. For a second, they turned their attention to the ghastliness of brunch. Now, here’s a thing they could agree on! But it wasn’t totally clear if they were scoffing at that corruption of breakfast and lunch — that creative abyss! that scam! that beast of a shift! — or the sheer banality of the sentiment.

    In the century since it began as a hunt breakfast in Britain, brunch has been criticized for being lazy, bourgeois, feminine, exorbitant, soulless, dishonest. Even as it evolved, and established itself across gender, class and cultural divides, it never managed to shake all that off. By the time the writer Sadie Stein documented a wave of brunch hatred in 2018, the contempt itself had become a cliché.

    James Corden, the host of “The Late Late Show,” has found himself in the middle of a controversy over rude behavior toward the staff at a restaurant.

    • An ‘Abusive’ Customer: Corden was accused of berating the staff of Balthazar in New York City over an error with an omelet order, among other things. The story prompted criticism of the TV host on social media.
    • Damage ControlHere is how Corden addressed the situation on “The Late Late Show.”
    • Dangers of LikabilityOne reason the controversy took off is that Corden “doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would humiliate a waiter over an egg,” our critic writes.
    • Gossip on the MenuCorden’s omelet, made exclusively with egg yolks, was not the only food tied to a celebrity in recent weeks. A certain salad dressing was also on everyone’s mind.

    I’m thinking of James Corden — really, I wish I weren’t — berating a Balthazar server because his wife’s omelet was made with either a fleck of egg yolk, or a fleck of egg white, whichever one was wrong. A customer banned, but readmitted. A halfhearted apology and a full-throated rant. Are the threads of this story familiar because they so thoroughly saturated our social feeds, or because they’re exactly the sort of timeless, archetypal trash that a chaotic brunch leaves in its wake?

    Two Asian waiters holding pitchers of orange juice wear faces of disgust as they look out over outdoor dining tables filled with guests.
    In “Fire Island,” the characters played by Bowen Yang, left, and Joel Kim Booster, right, work as brunch servers in New York, enduring demanding, racist diners.Credit…Searchlight Pictures

    In “Fire Island,” a gay rom-com that came out this summer, Noah and Howie’s early friendship unfolds in a quick flashback, as they endure that exact brand of New York brunch chaos, punctuated by the demands of a racist diner who seems to call one, or maybe both of them, “Jackie Chan.” No one speaks up or steps in. And no one is particularly shocked — there is a brutality to brunch, if you work it. This, too, is its ritual.

    “I hope there’s no villain,” says Will Guidara, one of the judges on “The Big Brunch,” a new reality show on HBO Max, as he eyes the group of contestants bustling in the kitchen. “We’re the villains,” replies Sohla El-Waylly, another judge (and a New York Times contributor), with an icy little laugh.

    But within a few minutes, it’s clear that isn’t the case at all. “The Big Brunch,” which premieres on Nov. 10, is a sweet-tempered cooking competition that approaches its contestants and its subject matter with a sense of ambition, geniality and optimism — all things that brunch, as a genre, has rarely seen.

    On a television studio set, a dark-haired woman in a green shirt pours a tiny carafe of syrup into another tiny carafe held by a man with glasses in a blazer.
    Mr. Levy and Ms. El-Waylly respect brunch as a form, and the people who make it, on “The Big Brunch.”Credit…HBO

    Dan Levy, who created “Schitt’s Creek,” is behind the show. He hosts it and sets the tone, and seems determined to show brunch, and the people who make it, a bit of respect. He does not stride into a kitchen full of nervous cooks as dramatic music plays — Mr. Levy is waiting for contestants as they arrive, so he can greet them. During challenges, he often pops into the kitchen with a drink in hand, encouraging the cooks, offering helpful tips and reminders of what the judges are looking for.

    The set approximates a luxurious, professional restaurant with a clear divide between front and back of the house, and a well-lit pass where the first courses are usually judged. And while there’s a sense of competition (the winner is working toward a prize of $300,000), contestants tend to be chummy and supportive, as in “The Great British Baking Show,” helping to carry each other’s dishes to the judges.

    At the beginning of each episode, they cook and share a patchwork of a family meal, leaning over their stations, eating food that wasn’t made for the cameras to see or the judges to taste, but simply to nourish one another and calm the nerves. It’s a nice touch, and the show is full of them.

    In an overhead shot, wooden bowls on a cutting board hold red peppers and pickled onions. A bowl of queso and one of chips sit on either side.
    A contestant’s vegan parillada made with barbecue jackfruit, vegan queso, pickles and chiles is featured on “The Big Brunch.” Credit…HBO

    It’s satisfying to see judges politely weeding out the kind of culinary laziness associated with restaurant brunches (yes, you deserve better than solidified animal fat on the cold, metal straws of ill-conceived cocktails!). Ms. El-Waylly, in particular, holds brunch to a standard, pushing contestants away from leaning on store-bought foods like bagels or presmoked and -sliced fish, wangling more precision in their technique and seasoning.

    The show’s gentle authority builds with each episode, as themes work to define the variations of brunch, venerating and dignifying its most unexamined and comforting platitudes. The morning-after brunch, closely related to the hangover brunch. The diner brunch. The carb-loading brunch. The novelty-item brunch, in which cooks imagine how to go viral with a visual concept or hybridized food. The holiday brunch, which is open to interpretation.

    Each category is familiar and distinct, requiring significant effort and care. By the end of the show, it’s indisputable that brunch is a significant part of our culinary canon. If you dismiss the ritual, out of habit, then maybe the joke’s on you — there’s so much pleasure in taking it seriously.

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.