Top Chef has returned to Bravo for its landmark 20th season, bringing together chefs from all over the world and previous seasons of the venerable cooking competition, and while Top Chef is arguably The Best food-related reality show, maybe it has whetted your appetite for something a little different? Or maybe you have a taste for more food-related reality shows? Either way, this spring’s reality show lineup has plenty of things on the menu (okay, that’s the last one) you might be interested in.
But the quiet trick of Top Chef is that it takes the cooking and the food seriously even while dressing everything else up in the trappings of a fun reality competition show. At its best, it walks a careful balance between super silly and no silly at all, never going too far in either direction, which is what keeps it fun and compelling. This spring’s other cooking shows don’t stick to that same balance, instead choosing to lean one way or the other, so to help you decide your cooking show future, we’ll organize them in order of silliness.
Is It Cake? (Netflix, March 17)
If Top Chef is venerable, Netflix’s Is It Cake? is the opposite (but in a nice way). The show’s second season premieres on March 17, and the show has always deserved some credit for being exactly what it presents itself as—which, it’s worth saying, is delightfully ironic. Based on the viral social media trend from a few years ago where bakers would make cakes that look like things that aren’t cakes and then dramatically cut into them to reveal that they are, in fact, cakes, Is It Cake? doesn’t really aspire to be anything greater than that.
Competitors make cakes that look like other things, a panel of judges decide which thing is a cake, and if they can’t figure it out, the baker wins a prize. What more could anyone need? In this specific case and this case only, there’s nothing. Hopefully the show can retain some momentum as it goes on, which Netflix’s Floor Is Lava had some trouble doing.
Supermarket Stakeout (Food Network, April 25)
Entering its fifth season this year, Supermarket Stakeout puts chefs in a pop-up kitchen outside of a grocery store and tasks them with making dishes with a certain theme. The trick? They have to get their ingredients from people coming out of the store, buying up their butter or whatever with cash, which is wild. It seems like an enormous inconvenience to these shoppers! What if you’re running to the store after work, you just need some chicken breasts and various spices, and the only grocery store on the way to your house is the one where they’re filming Supermarket Stakeout?
How much money would it take for you to give up your chicken breasts? $100? $1,000? That’s the kind of profound question posed by Supermarket Stakeout. But also it’s a very silly concept, so that’s why it’s on this list.
Alex vs. America (Food Network, April 16)
Supermarket Stakeout is hosted by Alex Guarnaschelli, who you may recognize from Chopped if you follow cooking shows (she’s one of the longtime judges), and she’s also the star of the thrillingly named Alex vs. America. The show sounds more violent than it is, since it’s a cooking show, but it is also about serious cooks doing serious cooking. Each episode, Guarnaschelli herself competes in a cooking battle against experts in a particular themed ingredient—Italian or breakfast or cheese, that sort of thing.
Presumably, Guarnaschelli is working her way through every possible kind of food until she has either bested or been bested by everyone in America. This is the show’s third season, but by the time they get to 40 or 50 and Guarnaschelli is cooking Hot Pockets against Hot Pockets experts, it’ll be much higher on the silly scale.
Taste The Nation With Padma Lakshmi (Hulu, May 5)
Padma Lakshmi has always been the other quiet trick of Top Chef, since she embodies the balance between fun and seriousness, though it’s not so “quiet” since she’s the host and main star, but she brings a similar energy to Taste The Nation—which is sort of her version of a classic Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives-style restaurant tour. Lakshmi visits diverse communities in the United States, learns about their culture, and then grabs a handful of spicy queso and talks about how “money” it is.
It’s actually more heartfelt and thoughtful than that, with Lakshmi sharing various experiences from immigrants and indigenous peoples in a kind and respectful way. It’s still fun, because Lakshmi’s a great TV presence, but it definitely leans more serious than, say, Is It Cake?.
Restaurants At The End Of The World (National Geographic and Disney+, March 21)
Restaurants At The End Of The World is like an international version of Taste The Nation, but with a bigger focus on exploration than documentation. Host Kristen Kish, who you also may know from a certain show about the toppest chefs, travels to the most remote restaurants in the world and learns about how they gather ingredients and then what they do with those ingredients. It’s cooking and learning and growing as people through the experience of watching someone cook and learn and grow as a person.
It seems like nice TV, but it is definitely not silly, unless Kish encounters some things that don’t look like cakes but do turn out to be cakes. That seems unlikely, but you never know what you’re going to find at these far corners of the world. There just might be something that is a cake even though it doesn’t look like one.