The appeal of culinary shows is soaring among casual foodies and practiced home chefs alike.
In the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdown measures were enacted in cities, states and countries across the planet, people headed to the kitchen. Not only was this collective embrace of the culinary a necessity, with dining out practically impossible and daily deliveries unsustainable, it was also a way to productively use the extra time spent at home—whether as a solo pursuit or one that could be shared with the whole family. Those who had long struggled to so much as boil an egg were preparing to get their hands dirty while honing the basics, and those already accustomed to whipping up tasty eats were eager to up their game with a range of new techniques and dishes. Of course, aside from providing instruction and inspiration, food shows entertain and can bring world cultures to the comfort—and safety—of your home.
“Two things people are doing now more than ever before is watching content and cooking,” says Chris Knight, the president and CEO at Gusto Worldwide Media, who notes that the cookery platform Gusto TV’s numbers are way up. “We’ve tapped into a zeitgeist; we’re in a sweet spot where entertainment meets necessity.”
Boat Rocker Rights is seeing a similar taste for its many cooking shows. “Our clients are constantly sniffing out what’s new in the space,” says Natalie Vinet, VP of global sales for factual at the company, which represents the likes of Mary’s Kitchen Crush with Mary Berg and Anna’s Occasions.
Vinet, who believes it’s vital to have accessible and engaging hosts who can radiate their passion for food through the screen, adds: “I think that the COVID-19 situation has revived the more traditional-style cooking shows, particularly amateur cooking and instructional formats, and with more people staying at home, everyone is embracing their inner chef.”
Escapade Media has seen an increase in the demand over the past nine months, according to Natalie Lawley, managing director. “This genre provides inspiring options for viewers to create new types of dishes or learn new skills during this difficult time, and who doesn’t want to be a better cook?”
Stephen Driscoll, executive VP of EMEA sales at all3media international, says that while culinary titles have always been popular, buyers and their audiences have been looking for more home cooking inspiration and food shows with a travel element this year. He mentions the 15th season of the BBC Two series Great British Menu, which “tapped into the audiences’ need for an entertaining distraction from events outside and a celebration of great cuisine in a competitive but fun setting. Every season has a theme, and this year it was children’s literature and their authors. I suspect that families were spending a lot more time together this year, [making] that season really work well for the audience.”
Like everyone else, celebrities, too, have found themselves fending for themselves in the kitchen more than usual, inspiring a raft of celebrity-led cookery shows filmed from within their own homes. On HBO Max, for instance, there’s the Selena Gomez-led Selena + Chef, which sees the singer and actress learning how to cook from a new esteemed chef in each episode.
Gordon Ramsay, the star of Kitchen Nightmares; 24 Hours to Hell and Back; Uncharted; Gordon, Gino and Fred’s Road Trip and Hotel Hell, is “a global name who commands an audience in any market,” says all3media international’s Driscoll. “He has a global reputation and career engaging audiences everywhere. And every year, he and Studio Ramsay are looking at ways to bring something new to the audience that will stand out from the crowd.”
Of course, not every company can have someone as famous around the world as Ramsay top-lining multiple series across their slate. And as far as Gusto’s Knight is concerned, star power is not the only way to strike a chord with viewers—especially when among the main goals is reaching an international audience.
“We designed Gusto, from the very first day six years ago, to be a global brand,” says Knight. “If you look at our hosts, our content, there is tremendous cultural diversity. Our existence is based on celebrating global culture, so we have young, articulate, passionate millennial hosts from all over the world, speaking of love and passion and family.”
These themes are proving to be particularly important with the global community trying to adjust to life during this pandemic. “These are incredibly challenging times, and food series of all types can offer the opportunity for families to come together over cooking,” says Escapade’s Lawley. “This is an activity that can be done in and around the home while also being a platform to provide care for neighbors that may be struggling. The creation of a meal not only provides nutrition but can also be the way in which we reach out to care for our wider communities.”
The evolving vertical of cooking programs offers something for everyone. “Some people just watch food shows for entertainment, knowing they will never cook what they see, and they gravitate toward the competition format,” says Boat Rocker’s Vinet. “However, others who are foodies and home cooks have their taste buds tickled by the more instructional-style series or those that celebrate the origins of food flavor and food travel.”
And amid COVID-19, those involved in food programming (and most other industries) are in search of new ways of appealing to consumers. “This could be with new formats that reflect how things have changed during the pandemic or shows that explore how the restaurant industry is reinventing itself and how virtual and ghost kitchens can work in new show formats,” says Vinet.
One subcategory that enjoys some difference of opinion among the surveyed execs is competition cooking series. Escapade’s Lawley finds that they can claim continued popularity across all media, while Gusto’s Knight isn’t confident that the category has what it takes to endure. “I think competition shows are dying,” he says, while conceding that the big shiny-floor shows will likely stick around because of their entertainment and high production values. “It’s the other competition shows that, as a genre, have pretty much run their course. Listen, when you have the words ‘Christmas’ and ‘wars’ in the title of your show, you know you’ve jumped the shark. The problem with those shows, of course, is that they have no shelf life. There’s no repeat viewing. You run out of things to compete about, and then it just becomes redundant.”
Gusto prides itself on offering food and cooking programming for a new generation. “We’re reinventing the genre,” says Knight. “It’s not about the linear assembly of ingredients and the application of a heat source. If you watch our shows, even the ones in the studio, nobody ever mentions a quantity—a half a liter of this or a cup of that or a 350-degree oven. Nothing is ever talked about in terms of assembling the dish. What our talent talks about is joy and passion and love and culture and aromas and textures.”
This ethos can be seen in Gusto titles like Flour Power, which continues to do well for the company, and Cook Like a Chef, a series that recently wrapped filming. Gusto currently has in the works a new global fusion cuisine show called CombiNATION Plates. In it, chef-host Bianca Osbourne is aided by visual storytelling to show how cultures can be combined. The recipes feature combinations like Greek and Canadian cuisines and Chinese and Italian cuisines.
Over at all3media international, Driscoll takes pride in the company’s offering of shows in the “travel/food/feats of strength” subcategory, such as Eddie Eats America, produced by North One TV for UKTV. “The producers certainly found a fresh and engaging host and format in which to bring someone new to the food and travel genre. It follows former World’s Strongest Man Eddie ‘The Beast’ Hall traveling across the U.S. and performing feats of strength while learning about local food hotspots and trying to win local food challenges.
“We are very fortunate to work with some of the best producers around,” Driscoll adds. “They are constantly finding new and interesting ways to look at these subjects and engage an audience.”
The travel element in Eddie Eats America is an important one in food series. It’s “good for attracting an international audience, but the producer has to think outside the box to find a way to present that in new, engaging ways on-screen,” says Boat Rocker’s Vinet. “Late Nite Eats is a great example of this sort of show, which sees Jordan Andino traveling various cities to find the ultimate in after-hours cuisine.”
“There’s an opportunity to live vicariously through the programming,” says Gusto’s Knight, who finds that these sorts of shows represent achievable luxuries. “In this time, when nobody can go anywhere and nobody can do anything, and everybody is deathly afraid and we have small bubbles, experiencing the world through food is an affordable luxury that pretty much anybody can avail themselves of.”
Part of traveling—virtual or otherwise—is encountering local eats. And food shows are often able to be on the ground to give a look at how and what locals around the world are eating. At Escapade, Lawley says, “Sourcing our ingredients locally has become a huge part of our shows as well as being conscious about how ingredients are grown and sourced.” She adds: “We have especially looked for food varieties that have not been covered before.” Slice with Adam Richman, for example, “takes us all over the globe exploring how flatbreads and pizzas have become one of our most-loved food.”
Boat Rocker’s Food Pop also covers popular foods consumed worldwide, showing how recipes change in each region or country. “From hot dogs to popcorn, from chocolate to tacos, the series highlights how these famous creations were born and evolved to what we know and how they impact our culture as inspiration for art, jewelry and even amusement parks,” says Vinet.
Knight, who notes that Gusto shoots everything in 4K, further believes that a key separator when it comes to food programming, in these times or at any time, is that it can reach viewers on a physiological level: “It can make your pupils dilate, and your mouth water and your tummy rumble. It can make you hungry. And that’s a very powerful emotional connection with the viewer that you can’t get from virtually any other type of television.”