Remember when “Top Chef” was one of the few cooking competitions on TV? And when “The Great British Baking Show” charmed viewers with its delightfully ordinary amateur bakers who worked hard to show off their homespun skills?
Since those relatively simple days, TV has been engaged in a food explosion, with what seems like a never-ending supply of shows in which professional cooks test their talents, amateurs try to impress judges, chefs host travelogue-style series inspired by the late Anthony Bourdain, and celebrities in search of a new gig decide to host cooking shows, even if they don’t know their way around a kitchen.
Come on. Did we really need Selena Gomez and Paris Hilton hosting their own cooking shows on, respectively, HBO Max and Netflix? Did viewers learn anything from watching Brooklyn Beckham – better known as the son of David Beckham and Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham – putting pre-cooked bacon and sausage and a hard-cooked, broken-yolk egg on cold white bread for a “Today” show cooking segment?
Not really. And definitely nope, when it comes to that unappetizing-looking breakfast sandwich, complete with a ketchup drizzle. But we got them, anyway.
While all of that culinary overkill makes us want to reach for an antacid, it’s a pleasure to report that there’s a new season of “The Great British Baking Show” streaming on Netflix, and that “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi is back for “Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition,” a new round of episodes of her Hulu show, which takes a Bourdain-like approach in investigating immigrant and indigenous cultures and how their traditions have influenced what we think of as American cooking.
Both shows are reminders of how food-focused TV can transport us, offering comforting escapism in the case of “The Great British Baking Show,” and blending history, sociology, current affairs, and mouth-watering views of delicious food in “Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition.”
That said, the new season of “The Great British Baking Show” hasn’t exactly taken off, in social media terms. The “Popular on Netflix” list features “Squid Game,” the dystopian sensation from South Korea, along with “Maid,” “Sex Education,” the “Seinfeld” reruns that now live on Netflix, a new season of the stalker drama “You,” and more offerings that aren’t nearly as cuddly as “The Great British Baking Show.”
It’s true that “The Great British Baking Show” is still displaying an overly enthusiastic embrace for “Showstopper” challenges that focus on contestants’ ability to construct improbably huge creations. To paraphrase Fabio Viviani from an earlier season of “Top Chef,” this is, after all, “The Great British Baking Show,” not “The Great British Engineering Show.”
And, as long as we’re airing grumpy grievances, it’s also a fact that hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas don’t provide the kind of cozy company that earlier season hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins dished up like extra servings of pie. Sandi Toksvig, who worked with Fielding before departing, is also missed. Fielding and Lucas come off as a bit too-hip-for-this, which isn’t the biscuits-and-tea atmosphere we’re looking for in “The Great British Baking Show.”
But even with those caveats, the new season features a likable group of contestants. Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith are as reliable as ever, and Leith, who inherited the tricky task of replacing the beloved Mary Berry, has become a warm, especially entertaining presence.
“Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition” takes on a more complicated task, as Lakshmi, herself an immigrant from India, travels around the U.S. to talk with people whose history speaks volumes about immigration, assimilation, and trying to find the balance between honoring tradition and forming new pathways.
In the new series of four episodes, each about a half-hour, Lakshmi continues her mission of exploring how immigrant culture and cooking have become a part of what we consider American food.
In “Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition,” Lakshmi takes viewers to New York, for a look at how Jewish immigrants shaped the city’s culinary scene, and celebrated Hanukkah; Miami, for an illuminating exploration of Cubans who brought traditions and food to the U.S.; and Los Angeles’ Koreatown, where history and innovation meet for celebrations of the Lunar New Year.
The most affecting episode involves Lakshmi meeting with members of the Wampanoag Nation in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. The myths of Thanksgiving so many children grew up learning in school are addressed, as the voices of indigenous people take precedence.
Titled “Truth and the Turkey Tale,” the episode recalls one of the standout installments from the “Top Chef” season that was based in Portland, in which the chefs cooked with foods sacred to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
While both the new seasons of “The Great British Baking Show” and “Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition” run the risk of getting lost in a crowd of other TV food shows (a new season of “Nailed It!,” “Baking Impossible,” “The Next Thing You Eat,” “Snoop and Martha’s Very Tasty Halloween,” etc.), each boasts their own special sauce, and that makes them worth savoring.
The 2021 season of “The Great British Baking Show” is continuing to stream on Netflix; “Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition” streams beginning Thursday, Nov. 4, on Hulu.
— Kristi Turnquist