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Dan Levy’s The Big Brunch combines two genres into one creative, well-balanced plate

Dan Levy’s The Big Brunch combines two genres into one creative, well-balanced plate
Chef J Chong chats with Dan Levy in the kitchen of The Big Brunch (Photo by Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max)

Brunch was once called “the most delicious—and divisive—meal in America,” and it shares that fractured reception with reality television, both frequently maligned yet easy to indulge in. They’re also both deeply embedded into our culture, and going nowhere despite their detractors’ complaints.

Brunch, in name and practice, collapses two meals into one thing that’s both sweet and savory, and HBO Max’s new The Big Brunch does, too. It combines the familiar beats of compassionate competition reality TV with the documentary-style celebration of food and its cooks that The Chef’s Table introduced seven years ago on Netflix, layering the two together in a way that works very well but is not without its flaws.

There’s good reason for that: The Big Brunch comes from Boardwalk Pictures, the producers of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Cheer, and Last Chance U, all shows that center people and their craft.

While The Chef’s Table is more of a sedate celebration of food and the people who make it, The Big Brunch has more personality, much of it attributable to its host, judge, and executive producer, Dan Levy. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Levy, who’s such a fan of the genre it inspired him to create Schitt’s Creek, would not only help shape the show, but give it its soft, warm center, much like his character of David did on the sitcom.

Chef J Chong chats with Dan Levy in the kitchen of The Big Brunch
Chef J Chong chats with Dan Levy in the kitchen of The Big Brunch (Photo by Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max)

Levy’s good humor (“A carb on a carb? I’m in!”) and passion (“I’ll fight to the death”) is immediately appealing, and I love his unapologetic enjoyment while judging: He’s not just tasting food, but eating it.

“I will be putting this aside to eat later,” he tells one contestant, and he’s not kidding, asking one of the servers who’s clearing plates to box it up.

Wandering the kitchen, Dan Levy has all the supportiveness of Tim Gunn, but at the judge’s table, he’s more Padma Lakshmi. He slides into whatever role is necessary, and that makes him perfect as host and judge who’s not afraid to be authoritative or vulnerable. “We’re trying out the bell. I don’t know,” he says, shrugging.

He’s also encouraging. “Do what you want to do, and we will follow you,” Dan Levy tells Nadege after she’s presented a dish and admitted to toning down the heat for the judges.

Chef Daniel Harthausen on The Big Brunch
Chef Daniel Harthausen on The Big Brunch (Photo by Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max)

The competition has 10 chefs competing in two challenges per episode, challenges which approach brunch from different angles, sometimes deconstructing it (asking the chefs to make a component) and sometimes theming their dishes.

One chef is eliminated in each episode, of course, and all of this leads up to a generous, final prize of $300,000.

Judging alongside Levy are restaurateur Will Guidara and chef Sohla El-Waylly, who may be best known for her work at Bon Appétit—and for calling out Bon Appétit for its discrimination and racism before resigning.

They brunch together, cozying up in a big, curved booth in the diner by way of a brassiere, and chatting with bartender Xia Rashid about what they’d like to order. Their conversation and banter seems to just capture what they’d be saying if they were sitting in chairs off-camera.

“Every reality television show, there’s a villain,” Will tells Sohla in one such moment.

“I feel like we’re the villains,” she replies.

“I don’t want to be the villain!” he says. They’re not villains—no one is, because this is not that kind of reality competition. They are, however, candid about their criticism, while being generous with compliments about the chefs’ ideas and the food itself.

The Big Brunch is served on a set that’s a large kitchen with the usual stations, but has an addition of a pass that opens onto a dining room, where Dan Levy and the judges sit, watching, drinking, and chatting. When the judges deliberate, the partition closes, so the contestants can’t hear.

In small ways like that, the show finds ways to nudge the common cooking competition show outside its normal boundaries. That even happens literally: At the start of the third episode, Levy walks them off the set, into the soundstage, offering a glimpse of what is just outside of our view: cameras, producers, cables, the soundstage’s towering wall, and outside next to the bungalows, where fresh ingredients and one of the show’s culinary producers await.

The Big Brunch filmed at Red Studios Hollywood, which was once Desilu Cahuenga Studio and later Ren-Mar Studios. It’s the studio where I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls, among others, were filmed. If The Big Brunch was filmed in the same space once occupied by The Golden Girls, where they sat around their kitchen table, eating and exchanging barbs and Saint Olaf stories, that’d be perfect, because there is a sort of family-of-choice vibe to this show, even though it’s a competition.

The contestants are warm and supportive, walking with the departing chef as they walk off set, though the show doesn’t give us as many moments with them. (I’ve seen the first three episodes; HBO Max is releasing three this week, three next, and two on Thanksgiving Day.)

“I’m learning from, not only you, but this amazing family behind me,” Kip tells the judges in episode three. While that growth may be on the plate, the learning from each other is not on ours. That’s one of The Big Brunch’s missteps.

As much as I like the judges’ banter, watching them sit and chat while the chefs work can sometimes pull focus away from the cooking, leaving us out of the process. But with 50-minute episodes, it’s possible we’re not missing anything, just that more has been added.

The easily parodied Chef’s Table sensibilities pop up here, notably in the bio packages, which artfully introduce the chefs but can interrupt the episode’s pacing. The music also interrupts: it’s sometimes completely absent and sometimes heavy-handed, dropping away and then suddenly appearing as if a cat is walking across the keyboard, stepping on mute or switching to a different track and genre.

While this sort of slow-motion, look-at-me craft, like the slow-mo food porn of Chef’s Table, can be quite indulgent, it’s arriving here surrounded by a competition, so it’s reduced down. Most of those moments come in bio packages which artfully introduce the chefs, but are so long they can interrupt the pacing of the challenge.

The Big Brunch stays surprisingly quiet, judicious with its use of interview segments, and never over-explaining. This isn’t raucous, drunken brunch, repeat-that-story brunch, but indulging for hours while connecting with close friends.

This is the kind of show I will miss now that HBO Max is in fire sale mode, like Legendary before it: a beautifully produced celebration of creativity that also evolves a familiar format by gently nudging it forward.

The Big Brunch

The Big Brunch combines the familiar beats of compassionate competition reality TV with the documentary-style celebration of food and its cooks. A

What works for me:

  • Dan Levy: as host, judge, mentor, and creator
  • The overall package: a supportive, warm environment that celebrates chefs and their food

What could be better:

  • More time with the actual chefs
  • The music

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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