I love a competition between artisans and craftspeople, amateur or professional, and two such shows arrived on Netflix recently that caught my attention: a cooking competition, The Chef’s Life, and an interior design competition, Interior Design Masters. One over-delivered and is a show I strongly recommend, and the other was underwhelming.
First, Netflix seems to bulking up with shows that have “chef” and “table” in the title: The Chef Show, Chef’s Table, Chef’s Table: France, The Final Table and now, The Chef’s Line. But it’d be a shame to miss The Chef’s Line or confuse it for something else.
While Netflix’s own series The Final Table was a poor imitation of Masterchef, The Chef’s Line is exceptional television—just a delight from the start to the end of its quick, 22- and 23-minute episodes.
It’s an Australian series that premiered in 2017 on SBS, a public broadcaster, and has aired two seasons. I wish our public television, PBS, had competitions like this one.
The Chef’s Line combines the knowledge and passion of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat with the camaraderie of The Great British Baking Show, and adds a new element: the competition isn’t just between amateur cooks, but home cooks and a professional chef.
Here’s the basic structure: Every “week” is five episodes, all of which focus on the same cuisine. Four chefs from an Australian restaurant that specializes that cuisine come to compete; they range in experience and talent from apprentice to head chef/owner.
That’s the titular chef’s line, and in each episode, or “night,” the home cooks plus one of the chef’s from the restaurant cook a single dish, usually a classic or staple of that cuisine.
The restaurants other chefs look on, offering their colleague support—and a lot of pressure—as that person makes the restaurant’s version of the dish. Meanwhile, the four home cooks, who are also well-versed in that cuisine, make their own versions.
This is an original format from Eureka Productions, which also created two of favorite shows of the year, Dating Around and Holey Moley. There is no similarity in tone, of course, between the three, but what is similar is that they all have created something new in spaces where a lot of shows are weighted down by sameness.
There are smart choices throughout The Chef’s Line. While there’s a panel of three judges—chef Dan Hong, food writer Melissa Leong, and chef Mark Olive—only one judges each night, and they judge blind, which is all too rare in talent competitions.
All three of judges are truly extraordinary at describing what they’re seeing and eating. They analyze dishes with precise, accessible language. There is no generic “delicious” being repeated dozens of times every episode.
The judges are also in conversation with each other, including about their expectations for the dish. The two who watched the actual cooking don’t reveal who made what, but they do share insight into choices that were made in the preparation.
The episode’s judge chooses the best dish, and—not-really-spoiler alert—the pros don’t win every time. They also choose their least-favorite, and that home cook leaves.
The next episode, the remaining home cooks face off against a more-experienced chef from the restaurant, until, in episode four, the last-remaining home cook competes directly against the head chef.
While they are all competing, and the restaurant’s reputation seems like it could be on the line, everyone approaches this joyfully, celebrating each other’s victories—and even help the competition. More than one head chef offers advice, knowledge, and even resources to the home cooks. They’re all there to challenge themselves and celebrate cuisine they love.
The Chef’s Line has no on-camera host until the fifth episode of each batch, when Maeve O’Meara shows up to tour the restaurant whose chefs we’ve just watched. (She does narrate the earlier episodes.) Those fifth episodes are easily skippable, but for those pros I really liked, I enjoyed seeing them in action after watching them during the competitions.
Netflix has 30 episodes right now: six cuisines, five episodes each, so there’s a lot to watch and enjoy—but that’s only a fraction of the 115 episodes that were produced between the show’s two seasons, so I hope we get more soon. It’s easily the best savory cooking competition on Netflix right now.
Interior Design Masters isn’t a masterful competition, alas
I couldn’t have been more excited for Interior Design Masters, but I was left underwhelmed and just missing The Great Interior Design Challenge.
For an eight-episode series, it’s fine, with some designs that were, well, fine. But like many of the spaces that were redesigned, nothing much popped, and some of the choices were just awkwardly bad.
The premise of the show, which was produced for BBC2 and Netflix and premiered in the UK earlier this year: A competition between eight amateur designers, who get “a new commercial interior design challenge, ranging from shops to show homes and restaurants to hair salons” in each episode, as the BBC said in its announcement.
The first problem: Almost all of the challenges were homes. I suppose commercial interior design includes doing residential spaces, but the list in the description suggests that we’re going to see mostly commercial spaces.
Only three of the eight spaces were actual commercial spaces, the aforementioned shops, restaurants, and hair salons. The rest were living spaces, including dorms and show homes.
I might not have have noticed that had the show’s other choices not been so bizarre, bordering on bafflingly inept.
For example: How do you make an interior design makeover show and fail to include before and after shots at the end?
At the end of episodes, the redesigned spaces were revealed to us without even a flash of what it looked like before. Sometimes the spaces were so radically transformed that they were unrecognizable compared to the earlier space.
There was also a lot of attention on pleasing clients and meeting the brief, and very little about what exactly the brief contained, and in early episodes, there were no clients at all. Even when there were clients, like in the hair salon and restaurants, the episode breezed past that interaction, despite its importance to the competition.
If the goal is to have designers create spaces to a client’s needs and demands, there should be more than a few moments dedicated to that.
What did get attention was conflict between the designers when they were required to work together in pairs or in teams.
Talent competitions often lean on team competitions because when artists have to work together, there’s inevitable conflict. That can mirror what happens outside of reality competitions, where people do have to collaborate, but it often just seems like a way to inject some artificial drama.
On Interior Design Masters, contestants would show up for their next challenge having already prepared and designed their spaces, and only then would be formed into teams, when they’d have to work together to unify their designs.
That’s quite the backwards way to work! Preparing and then teaming up only really made sense for the restaurants, where clients chose one of two designs based on the designers’ pitches.
Judging was left to a single person, Michelle Ogundehin, although there were guest judges in each episode, including The Great Interior Design Challenge’s Sophie Robinson and Instant Hotel season two’s Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
There was frequent disagreement between Michelle and her guest judges, which highlighted—in a way I really appreciated—the subjectivity of this kind of evaluation. Decisions, though, were entirely Michelle’s.
In the last few episodes, she usually sent home the person I expected/wanted to stay, based on both the editing and design. Combined with an underwhelming final challenge—a living room and two bedrooms for each finalist—my interest waned, though I stuck through the series.
Even host Fearne Cotton’s narration started to grate on me, because whoever wrote her lines is a superfan of dependent clauses (Excited to be done hearing this narration, Andy watched the finale), some of which were grammatically incorrect with the clause modifying the wrong part of the sentence (Designing their rooms, the competition heated up for the designers.)
My focus on the awkward grammar of narration is a good indication of how much I was grasping at something to hold on to, because I already miss The Great Interior Design Challenge and was hoping this would fill that void in my Netflix queue. Alas, it feels as empty as many of the rooms on Interior Design Masters end up.