Brie Larson in “Lessons in Chemistry”
Brie Larson in “Lessons in Chemistry”. Image: Apple TV

Once a daily activity, channel hopping is now a rare treat – something I do when staying in a hotel with a traditional television. While indulging myself on a recent trip, the welter of images that I glimpsed across multiple channels confirmed a hypothesis that has been on my mind for quite a while: a vast quantity of television today, across many genres, is about food. Perhaps this is the consequence of the past few years of pandemic restrictions, when plenty of us had nothing to do except stay inside, alternately worrying about shortages and thinking about our next meal. Or maybe it’s just the latest manifestation of humanity’s survival instinct: where once we chased our dinner across the plains, now we like to watch as someone else does all the work to put food on a plate. Whatever the reason, it’s everywhere.

Reality television is, of course, dominated by food. Gordon Ramsay alone currently has five different series in production in the US (Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Kitchen Nightmares and Next Level Chef). One of the biggest events in unscripted television in years has been the unspooling scandal around Vanderpump Rules, a Real Housewives spinoff that revolves around the staff of various restaurants. This debacle alone has spawned thousands of hours of podcasts and TikToks, and sent curious diners flocking to the eateries in question.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the MasterChef franchise is barely off our screens between its amateur, professional, celebrity and junior versions, while the arrival of a new series of the Great British Bake Off is heralded by millions as the true beginning of autumn. One could be forgiven for thinking that we like watching food more than we enjoy eating it.

More surprisingly, prestige television drama is now also often set in a kitchen. One of the biggest hits in this sphere in the last year has been The Bear, set in a small Chicago diner that a fine dining chef has returned home to run after his brother dies. The chef, Carmy, struggles with the business’s debts, an unruly and resentful staff, as well as his own grief, all while trying to put out top-quality food for demanding customers. The combination of the daily routine of food prep and service, when coupled with these overarching emotional storylines, is extremely compelling. The pressure of the kitchen and the business keep the intensity up on the characters, and whether they are struggling with a shortage of forks, or the fallout from a loved one’s suicide, the narrative momentum barely lets up for a second.

That tension has its downsides. At times I found The Bear so vicariously stressful that I struggled to fall asleep afterwards. The same was true of Boiling Point – a new British drama series that also exploits the potential of the professional kitchen as the setting for a workplace drama. Expanded from a 2021 short film, and a 2022 feature film, this four-part adaptation also dramatises the pressure-cooker environment. The chefs’ struggles with addiction, their perfectionism and their clashes with clueless investors all make for high drama. One reviewer aptly wondered if the series was asking the question “What if The Bear isn’t stressful enough?”

Beyond the demands of the food service industry, there has been an interesting recent attempt to build a drama around home cooking, via an adaption of the bestselling novel Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This is a period piece set in the 1950s and early 1960s, following the fortunes of a female chemist who becomes the host of a popular television cooking show after her career in scientific research is ruined by discrimination and assault. In the Apple TV+ series, Brie Larson stars as Elizabeth Zott – a serious young woman who speaks her mind and refuses to ingratiate herself with men who are not her intellectual equals. She applies the same knowledge and processes to her home cooking as she does to her lab work, such as considering the behaviour of protein strands and emulsion stabilisers when trying to improve the lasagne she brings for lunch. She is constantly being asked to make coffee by her male colleagues: partly because they consider it all her skills are good for, but partly because she does it better than everyone else, with a multistep process that involves a high degree of precision and a distillation apparatus.

Lessons in Chemistry is a romance as well as a workplace drama. The first time Elizabeth meets Calvin Evans, wunderkind of their lab, he assumes she is a secretary and is incredibly rude to her. The second time, he vomits all over her dress. But the third time, they actually talk and she lets him eat some of her latest lasagne prototype. He even apologises – properly – for his previous behaviour. Food becomes essential to their burgeoning relationship, with Elizabeth bringing all of her scientific expertise to bear on making their life as delicious as possible. Unlike other recent television dramas centred around food, Lessons in Chemistry follows the lead of the novel it’s based on by presenting what Elizabeth cooks as a source of comfort, rather than tension. Being in the kitchen (or “lab”, as she insists on calling it) makes her feel better, not worse.

It is only after tragedy strikes that our heroine ends up cooking on television, her options in science having been destroyed by discrimination and jealousy. A chance encounter with a local television executive leads to her spending every afternoon fronting a show called Supper at Six, during which she eschews the conventional platitudes usually offered to housewives in favour of a rigorous, scientific approach to domestic work. She takes the women in her audience seriously, teaching them about denatured proteins and the Maillard reaction, rather than patronising them or relying on “labour saving” foods in tins or packets. Her fans sit rapt with attention, pencils poised over notebooks. Even though neither television nor cooking were the avenues that Elizabeth wanted to explore in her career, she tries to give the women who watch her what she was denied as a scientist: dignity, consideration and respect. She ends every episode with a catchphrase that encapsulates this: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment for herself.”

The food that Elizabeth makes is simple but delicious, made from whole ingredients in a way that is designed to take as little time and effort as possible. She makes the chemical processes involved – such as the reactions induced by sodium chloride, or table salt – comprehensible and approachable. It is easy to see why the viewers of her show, and the watchers of Lessons in Chemistry, would find her recipes comforting and appealing.

For all this, though, the series as a whole feels unsatisfying to me. Period drama has become an increasingly popular way for a values-conscious entertainment industry to portray the failures of the past – a “safe” way to put racism and sexism on screen without being subjected to allegations of perpetuating unacceptable politics. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but a captivating drama needs more than beautiful shots of 1950s food and a fairy-tale romance. Watching Elizabeth Zott move through the limitations of her world, I kept waiting for something more: some deeper analysis of the problems she faces, of the structures that keep her constrained, anything more than the surface-level “good vs bad” version offered by the show. It never arrived, however. This is one food-based story that is as disappointingly two-dimensional as every perfect dish that Elizabeth pulls from the oven.