As 2020 comes to a close, The A.V. Club applies our hindsight to the year in TV, finding common themes among seemingly disparate shows.
Anthony Bourdain’s sudden, shocking death in the summer of 2018 knocked the food world off of its feet, leaving a void that seemed like it could never be filled. Earlier that year, Netflix had introduced two travel/food hybrids in the form of Ugly Delicious and Somebody Feed Phil. And those shows continued, along with new ones like Salt Fat Acid Heat and The Chef Show, in 2019. But things just weren’t the same. Not until 2020, when two new travel series debuted that made tentative steps toward filling that unfillable void—and not on Netflix, either.
Taste The Nation With Padma Lakshmi debuted first, dropping the entirety of its 10-episode first season on Hulu on June 18. Lakshmi, like Bourdain, is a name that needs no introduction for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter: She’s been a judge on Top Chef for 14 years now, not to mention her multiple cookbooks and innumerable talk show appearances. But judging a reality competition show is a little less personal than hosting a travel series, and Taste The Nation gives Lakshmi an opportunity to show her personality beyond the (very convincing) remorse in her voice when she says, “Please pack your knives and go.” The Padma we meet on Taste The Nation is gracious, empathetic, curious, and a little bit ribald—a warm and personable travel companion, in other words, even if it’s just on TV.
The basic idea behind Bourdain’s various shows and Taste The Nation is the same: a well-known food writer travels around, eating and talking with the locals. The structures are also similar, and both open and close with voiceover narration written by the host. But the concept behind Lakshmi’s series is one that’s close to her heart, and one that she pitched to the streaming network: a look at the ways immigration has shaped American culture through food.
This is one area where Lakshmi has a unique advantage over her obvious predecessor; Bourdain advocated for immigrant restaurant workers, but wasn’t an immigrant himself. Lakshmi, on the other hand, emigrated to the U.S. when she was 4 years old. She was raised by a single mother, who had divorced her first husband—a radical move at the time—and moved to the U.S. on her own. These life experiences give the sometimes intimidatingly stylish Lakshmi a personal connection to her subjects, who open up to her in ways they might not to someone who hasn’t experienced their everyday struggles firsthand.
This personal touch is, perhaps obviously, most evident on “Don’t Mind If I Dosa,” the episode of Taste The Nation that focuses on Indian food in America. Both Lakshmi’s mother and daughter appear in the episode, and Mom in particular isn’t afraid to put the celebrity chef in her place. Beyond that, though, Lakshmi uses her experiences, and those of her family and friends, as springboards for larger discussions. A playful argument over whether Northern or Southern Indian sweets are better leads into a discussion of the subcontinent’s linguistic and cultural diversity; Lakshmi’s disappointment that her daughter doesn’t like lentils stands in for larger anxieties about identity and assimilation. It’s a more thoughtful, more deeply felt approach to thinking about travel and food, one that’s been sorely missed since mid-2018.
But Lakshmi, while no teetotaler, isn’t really a “stay out until last call doing shots” type, either. (On the episode of Taste The Nation exploring German heritage in Milwaukee, she says beer makes her gassy, but sips on some home brew anyway.) The hard-partying, irreverent side of Bourdain’s onscreen personality is better reflected in Hulu’s Eater’s Guide To The World, which comes without a host—when Eater staffers come along for culinary adventures, they appear in the background and don’t address the camera directly—but with plenty of irreverent commentary (and profanity) from narrator Maya Rudolph.
The episode of Eater’s Guide To The World that best captures this anarchic spirit is the one focusing on late-night eating in New York City, emphasizing the kind of under-the-radar spots that were Bourdain’s bread and butter (no pun intended) when filming in his hometown. After a visit to a food truck specializing in a Tijuanan take on birria and a badminton club popular among South Asian cab drivers, the episode really kicks into gear with some assistance from a sloshed group of young Korean-Americans—two of whom, Youngmi Mayer and Brian Park, host the podcast Feeling Asian—and some post-karaoke Korean BBQ.
The music is loud, and the group is rowdy. As plates of raw beef ready for the tabletop grill are set atop a table already crowded with the complimentary bowls of fermented yum known as banchan, Mayer, Park, and friends keep the party going with beers and shots well into the pre-dawn hours. “I’m afraid I’m going to get so drunk I cry on Hulu,” one confesses. “Could you not?!” Mayer cackles. Add an even later-night empanada run by a gaggle of drag queens who are famished after performing all night, and the episode, irreverently called “The Ass Crack Of Dawn In New York City,” edges toward something resembling the fuck-it-all joie de vivre of The Layover episode where Bourdain got hammered with Quebec’s culinary elite in 2011.
That being said, when exploring the world beyond America’s largest cities, Eater’s Guide To The World too often falls back on the expected, failing to really dig into the unexpected in places like Casablanca, Morocco, and the jungles of Costa Rica. It’s lively and it’s fun, but its perspective isn’t as unique as Lakshmi’s, or as deeply researched. And so while Lakshmi never leaves the confines of the United States—she does cover its entire length, from coastal South Carolina to Hawaii—her show is the one that feels more like it’s revealing unexplored ground.
That’s thanks to her explorations of under-exposed foodways like Native American and Gullah Geechee cuisine along with more popular ones like Thai and Mexican, all of which come with a side of commentary on how these cuisines have been dismissed, diluted, and appropriated throughout different periods of history. How can so many Americans love Mexican food, and hate Mexican immigrants? What does it say about our culture that the most popular dishes on Chinese restaurant menus don’t come from China?
These are the kinds of questions that, as fun or funny or borderline pornographic in their close-ups of sizzling meats as they may be, most travel shows don’t dig deep enough to answer. David Chang and Ugly Delicious do. Anthony Bourdain’s shows did. And in 2020, a travel-show host who combines the strengths of both of those men has come to lead post-Bourdain food TV into the future. We’ll follow Padma Lakshmi wherever she wants to go next—even if we have to bring our own beer.