Food Network’s prime-time focus on competition TV often feeds my needs, whether that’s for riveting competition or light background TV.
Yet even I must admit that it’s oversaturated with competition TV, and too many series seem like copied and pasted versions of other shows, and even reuse the same sets.
Before 2022 disappeared, Food Network took a welcome turn, premiering the first episodes of two brand-new prime-time shows—Bake It ‘Til You Make It and Chef Dynasty: House of Fang—that take the network in a different direction.
Instead of formatted, studio-based competition (or formatted, location-based renovation, as is the case with Restaurant Impossible), these are culinary-themed shows that follow real people in their lives.
From The Real World to The Real Housewives, this is not new space, but it’s a welcome step for Food Network. The super-teases for both shows got me so excited, hinting at drama that’s connected to real life: the challenge of running a restaurant, the stress of competition.
Both have potential. But after watching the first episodes, I was frustrated to find that both have a similar flaw.
Is Bake It ‘Til You Make It the next Showdogs Moms and Dads?
I’m nostalgic for the mid-2000s era of reality TV, and among the shows I still miss is the 2005 Bravo series Showdog Moms & Dads. It was a real-life Best in Show, following people who sought validation for their dogs and delivering a lot of entertainment, including a still-memorable moment.
Bake It ‘Til You Make It (Food Network, Mondays at 9) has the potential to be that like that show, in that it follows a group of passionate, talented people as they travel to regional competitions.
The first episode follows the cast of seven at The National Capital Area Cake Show, and the work they (and others) present is quite impressive and often stunning, perhaps because they’re not working under time constraints in a studio kitchen.
Some make edible art, adding intricate details that make some cakes look like painted ceramics, and there’s also a regular edible baking competition.
You may recognize some of the seven competitors it follows—Monty Alderman, Lili Clinger, Maythe Del Angel, RaChelle Hubsmith, Anamaria Morales, Kareem Queeman, and Sumera Syed —from other Food Networks shows such as Holiday Baking Championship.
There are other Food Network personalities, too: Nancy Fuller is a judge at the first cake show, while her fellow TV judge Duff Goldman narrates the show, though he’s off-camera.
Duff’s narration is perfectly fine, but the show’s major problem is that it’s over-narrated, with way too much exposition and cringy commentary that manages to be personality-free.
“Thankfully, there’s no height requirement for participation,” Duff says before a kid baker is introduced. Clunky writing aside, there’s so much narration I didn’t quite know the show had started, assuming we were still in the “this season on” preview at the beginning.
The seven bakers the show follows across the season also narrate from confessional interviews. The effect is to keep us at a distance from the action.
I found myself wanting more immersion, getting to know the bakers better, watching them navigate the competition, or even just seeing how they transported their cakes.
Because there’s so much talking to camera, it ends up being like the first and last acts of Holiday Wars or The Great Gingerbread Showdown, where contestants introduce themselves and later explain what they made and how they made it.
Even when we follow them to their kitchens, there’s more exposition than observation. The judging actually gets more uninterrupted time, as we see the competition’s judges going around and commenting—a very different type of commentary than the usual baking show. Alas, it doesn’t go so far as to let us peer behind the curtain as they actually make decisions.
Jane Latman—the incredibly successful executive who ran both Food Network and HGTV, and was one of the executives unceremoniously dumped as part of Warner Bros. Discovery’s mission to destroy their merged company in order to pay off its debts—said in a press release that “we are able to pull back the curtain on the world of competitive baking, giving viewers a front row seat to the highs and lows of each baker’s quest for success.”
Alas, what you can feel in the first episode is holding back from doing that. But it is moving in the right direction, and may be a bridge to a new kind of programming for the network.
Also, I recognize that the first episode does have a lot of narrative work to do, introducing the world and characters, and perhaps future episodes will pull back on the narration, and let us in even more. (I asked Food Network if they had additional screeners for press; I never heard back.)
Chef Dynasty: House of Fang = Vanderpump Rules?
Chef Dynasty: House of Fang (Food Network, Tuesdays at 9) immediately establishes its potential, both conceptually and technically (there’s a dynamic drone shot that darts through the restaurant during a busy service). It’s also immediately remarkable and welcome to see a show on Food Network with an Asian American cast.
Chef Dynasty’s star, Kathy Fang, has won Chopped twice and been on Food Network elsewhere, and also runs the San Francisco restaurant Fang with her father, Peter Fang, a chef and restauranteur who opened the popular House of Nanking in 1988.
He’s quite a character, and the occasional tension between father and daughter seems genuine: she wants to establish herself and her culinary prowess, while he doesn’t understand why his (once-progressive) approach to Chinese cuisine needs to be changed. But this is not relationship-ending conflict.
The series stays in the restaurant, and thus also follows the staff of Fang, like maitre’d Long and model/actor/bartender Joshua, who actually describes himself as a “mactor.”
When Kathy introduces her staff as being spicy, House of Fang seems to want to become Food Network’s own Vanderpump Rules. Alas, it’s more of a clunky wannabe version right now.
That’s because House of Fang spends more time in the interview room than with the action, constantly interrupting what’s happening to explain to us what’s happening.
Influencers come to a dinner to try new dishes; we have to listen to people talk about why social media influencers are important instead of meeting them. All of the stakes are spoken instead of seen. A Fang staff member talking about a crush isn’t as interesting as seeing people actually crush on each other.
House of Fang ends up delivering scene confetti: images flash, and following what’s happening from one image to the next is sometimes a challenge, perhaps because they’re not from the same time and space.
As I watched, I wondered: Was this a show wrecked in editing, with Food Network executives so insecure about moving in this new direction they gave bad notes that keep over-explaining instead of showing? Or was there just not enough material to make a show?
Kathy’s interest in trying to expand the menu could have made for a show by itself, but here the food is peripheral. So is the drama.
You can House of Fang straining to create conflict instead of leaning into character and the natural tensions there. Restaurant Impossible does a far better job of showing us the strain restaurants can have on family members, in no small part because it lets us see what happens.
Interviews can be a great way to give insight into what someone was thinking or feeling in the moment, but doesn’t work when constantly used as summary. House of Fang is a dinner party where the host just describes the food instead of serving it.
Chef Dynasty: House of Fang
Chef Dynasty: House of Fang is a dinner party where the host just describes the food instead of serving it. C
What works for me:
- Centering a show on Kathy Fang
- Peter Fang, as a character
- The potential for a docuseries about the challenges faced by a rising chef
What could be better:
- The clunky editing and storytelling
- The attempts to create drama
Bake It ‘Til You Make It
Following passionate and talented bakers as they compete takes Food Network in an exciting new direction, but it’s holding back too much. B-
What works for me:
- Going inside a subculture
- Following the same group across multiple competitions
What could be better:
- Fewer interviews
- More immersion in this world
- More character development