hbos cooking show the big brunch demands respect for the meal

HBO’s Cooking Show ‘The Big Brunch’ Demands Respect For the Meal

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I’d watched enough “Sex and the City” in my 20s to see how brunch could give a group of friends, and the episodic structure they lived in, a leisurely rhythm. But I was a cook — my rhythm was determined by a schedule pinned to a corkboard outside my chef’s office. If it put me on brunch service, it felt like I’d done something wrong: There was nothing more frivolous, tedious or hellish than brunch.

“Chefs hate brunch,” William Grimes wrote in The New York Times in 1998, the year “Sex and the City” aired. “The ‘B’ word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks,” wrote Anthony Bourdain a year later in an essay for The New Yorker. He was building on an unrelenting anti-brunch sentiment that’s existed for about as long as the meal itself — and still does.

Earlier this year, in the FX series “The Bear,” Carmy and Sydney were trying to reestablish lines of communication after a break in their fragile partnership as chef and sous-chef. For a second, they turned their attention to the ghastliness of brunch. Now, here’s a thing they could agree on! But it wasn’t totally clear if they were scoffing at that corruption of breakfast and lunch — that creative abyss! that scam! that beast of a shift! — or the sheer banality of the sentiment.

In the century since it began as a hunt breakfast in Britain, brunch has been criticized for being lazy, bourgeois, feminine, exorbitant, soulless, dishonest. Even as it evolved, and established itself across gender, class and cultural divides, it never managed to shake all that off. By the time the writer Sadie Stein documented a wave of brunch hatred in 2018, the contempt itself had become a cliché.

I’m thinking of James Corden — really, I wish I weren’t — berating a Balthazar server because his wife’s omelet was made with either a fleck of egg yolk, or a fleck of egg white, whichever one was wrong. A customer banned, but readmitted. A halfhearted apology and a full-throated rant. Are the threads of this story familiar because they so thoroughly saturated our social feeds, or because they’re exactly the sort of timeless, archetypal trash that a chaotic brunch leaves in its wake?

In “Fire Island,” a gay rom-com that came out this summer, Noah and Howie’s early friendship unfolds in a quick flashback, as they endure that exact brand of New York brunch chaos, punctuated by the demands of a racist diner who seems to call one, or maybe both of them, “Jackie Chan.” No one speaks up or steps in. And no one is particularly shocked — there is a brutality to brunch, if you work it. This, too, is its ritual.

“I hope there’s no villain,” says Will Guidara, one of the judges on “The Big Brunch,” a new reality show on HBO Max, as he eyes the group of contestants bustling in the kitchen. “We’re the villains,” replies Sohla El-Waylly, another judge (and a New York Times contributor), with an icy little laugh.

But within a few minutes, it’s clear that isn’t the case at all. “The Big Brunch,” which airs on Nov. 10, is a sweet-tempered cooking competition that approaches its contestants and its subject matter with a sense of ambition, geniality and optimism — all things that brunch, as a genre, has rarely seen.

Dan Levy, who created “Schitt’s Creek,” is behind the show. He hosts it and sets the tone, and seems determined to show brunch, and the people who make it, a bit of respect. He does not stride into a kitchen full of nervous cooks as dramatic music plays — Mr. Levy is waiting for contestants as they arrive, so he can greet them. During challenges, he often pops into the kitchen with a drink in hand, encouraging the cooks, offering helpful tips and reminders of what the judges are looking for.

The set approximates a luxurious, professional restaurant with a clear divide between front and back of the house, and a well-lit pass where the first courses are usually judged. And while there’s a sense of competition (the winner is working toward a prize of $300,000), contestants tend to be chummy and supportive, as in “The Great British Baking Show,” helping to carry each other’s dishes to the judges.

At the beginning of each episode, they cook and share a patchwork of a family meal, leaning over their stations, eating food that wasn’t made for the cameras to see or the judges to taste, but simply to nourish one another and calm the nerves. It’s a nice touch, and the show is full of them.

It’s satisfying to see judges politely weeding out the kind of culinary laziness associated with restaurant brunches (yes, you deserve better than solidified animal fat on the cold, metal straws of ill-conceived cocktails!). Ms. El-Waylly, in particular, holds brunch to a standard, pushing contestants away from leaning on store-bought foods like bagels or presmoked and -sliced fish, wangling more precision in their technique and seasoning.

The show’s gentle authority builds with each episode, as themes work to define the variations of brunch, venerating and dignifying its most unexamined and comforting platitudes. The morning-after brunch, closely related to the hangover brunch. The diner brunch. The carb-loading brunch. The novelty-item brunch, in which cooks imagine how to go viral with a visual concept or hybridized food. The holiday brunch, which is open to interpretation.

Each category is familiar and distinct, requiring significant effort and care. By the end of the show, it’s indisputable that brunch is a significant part of our culinary canon. If you dismiss the ritual, out of habit, then maybe the joke’s on you — there’s so much pleasure in taking it seriously.