In a 2018 episode of the TV show Ugly Delicious, chef and restaurateur Dave Chang bemoaned the state of food broadcasting at the time. “When I started cooking, I thought the only food that was worth exploring and learning and working hard to be proficient at was high end French dining. And now that’s sort of where I see food at right now in food television: is that everything has to be this super glossy affair, when in reality good food is everywhere and it’s not just one person’s perspective.”
The irony is that another Netflix show, Chef’s Table, arguably spearheaded that trend in contemporary food broadcasting, with its meticulously executed cinematography and Vivaldi score. At the same time, once-charming amateur cooking shows were becoming increasingly ambitious. Together, they’ve been responsible for a generation of armchair food critics. Meanwhile, all kinds of restaurants and food brands were commandeering the same carefully honed image, featuring the same naturally lit flat lay, which was then being replicated by customers for their Instagram feeds.
“It gets so boring after a while! There’s only so many ways you can arrange bowls of pasta on a nice table before it’s like, OK, we’ve seen this,” says Megan Paetzhold, a photo editor at New York magazine who, as well as assigning news stories, commissions photography for its food and restaurant arm, Grub Street.
Paetzhold isn’t alone. Somewhere in the last few years, we reached saturation point. In recipe book publishing, Yotam Ottolenghi – the chef everybody loved but could rarely imitate – took things back down a notch, starting with his “minimal hassle” cookbook Simple and his more recent book Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. At the same time, TV shows are changing things up, as seen in shows like Great British Menu – the crème de la crème of the UK cooking competitions – unveiling a new judging panel including a comedian, Ed Gamble, and a (admittedly Michelin-starred) pub chef, Tom Kerridge.
In the wider food industry and all its offshoots, creatives appear to be seizing upon food’s playful potential.