One of the benefits of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is that they allow TV stars, liberated from the confines of network television and cable, to try something new, expand their reach, or otherwise kick it up a notch. In Amazon’s Eat the World, for example, Emeril Lagasse, the celebrated chef who had my mother screaming “BAM” when she made chicken piccata once a week in the '90s, upends the food TV formula by traveling the world and chatting with famous chefs about their countries’ notable cuisines.
Wait. That’s not upending anything. That’s food-TV formula No. 13, right behind “blindfold the judges” and “have home cooks make the chef’s signature dish.” As such, much of Eat the World is predictable fare; even Mario Batali shows up in his yellow clogs (episode two). Much of it could be on the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, or Bravo, if not Sunday afternoon CBS. On Amazon, Lagasse could have done anything. Instead, he calls his pal Batali and they decamp to Shanghai to seek out the best soup dumplings.
About those dumplings: They’re a weak point of an otherwise enjoyable series, so we’ll start there. As in a buddy movie, Lagasse and Batali careen around Shanghai seemingly without a translator, a premise kicked up just a notch or two from finding the best clam chowder in San Francisco or the best crab in Maine. They’re not even looking for the best-tasting dumplings, but rather the ones with the best construction, or something. The two of them don’t do much to sell the idea. They slurp soup dumplings, meet chefs, and give half-hearted this-food-is-so-good-I’m-going-to-die pantomimes.
Fortunately, the quality of those pantomimes sharply increases in the rest of Eat the World, with Lagasse staggering and moaning his way through food you would give anything — save what the chefs are charging for it — to eat. It may be formulaic food TV, but it’s a high-end formula, as Lagasse has the pull to land the biggest stars in the food world.
When he arrives in Sweden and meets chef Marcus Samuelsson, Lagasse doesn’t make the mistake he made with Batali. He has the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised star, who first made his mark with New York’s Aquavit, lead us through something he really knows about: New Nordic Cuisine, which is celebrated as much for its earthy taste as for its food-porn backstory of pairing traditional cooking techniques with local ingredients (birch sap, bulrushes, puffin eggs, whatever is growing along the docks or between the rocks).
The high point of the episode is a visit to Ekstedt. In a restaurant so dark and smoky it could by day be a blacksmithery, chef Niklas Ekstedt hammers out food using centuries-old techniques and no electricity — mostly just lots of fire. “Birch, smoke, fire, hot,” he says more than once, or approximations of same. “Back in the day, they didn’t have frying pans,” he says later, so neither does his restaurant. He cooks by shoving things like iron bowls and cones into fire, pulling them out and sticking food in or on them, techniques he learned by checking out 500-year-old books at the library down the street. And he gets Michelin stars doing so.
In the workshop/kitchen, Lagasse is enlisted as sous chef, which means getting screamed at by Ekstedt while dripping sizzling beef fat from a flaming iron cone onto a langoustine topped with hay, which sears it. When they taste the langoustine, Lagasse outdoes himself pantomiming; everybody is in Nordic heaven, viewers included.
Lagasse heads to Spain to meet chef José Andrés in episode three, and after inhaling ham topped with firm, stringy egg yolk, he sits down before a wine glass filled with dozens of very alive baby eels. It is time, of course, to discuss modern cooking. And given that you can’t discuss modern cooking without talking about legendary chef Ferran Adrià, whose groundbreaking elBulli closed in 2011, Lagasse just up and has him on the show. Unfortunately, landing a catch like Adrià appears to have come with some strings. The master doesn’t cook anything or even watch anybody else cook (though he does manipulate a giant touch screen); he merely shows Lagasse around his elBulli Lab, which is devoted, as Lagasse says, to “categorizing everything having to do with cooking, going back to the beginning of man.”
Lagasse also says that he’s the first to be allowed to film inside the lab, which looks exactly like a trendy start-up — picture a bunch of people sitting over laptops in a remodeled warehouse, cataloging and dissecting everything about, say, a tomato. The job of getting Lagasse to pantomime over a bite of modern food is left to Adrià’s son Albert, whose soon-to-open modernist restaurant Enigma continues the cooking pioneered by his father. On the menu: almond-infused mousse puffs, which taste like Parmesan-flavored clouds (according to Andrés) or a salted marshmallow for adults (Albert). Lagasse’s performance does them justice.
In episode five, Lagasse meets chef Nancy Silverton in Italy, where the famed bread (La Brea Bakery) and pizza maker (Pizzeria Mozza) makes a grand proclamation: She knows the guy who makes the best pizza in the world. And thus begins a circuitous quest to eat that pizza, which first involves visiting all the food producers around Campania who make what goes into that guy’s pizza. We visit the townsfolk who catch the sardines, the farm that produces the buffalo mozzarella, the husband-and-wife team who make the olive oil, before finally turning up at the door of Franco Pepe, who makes what they all agree is the best pizza in the world. Who are we to argue? Put another way: We’re not arguing with Silverton. Lagasse’s seizure after eating a slice is on point. “No words,” he says, dispensing with his usual post-fit habit of simply listing the ingredients he detects.
While Lagasse has certainly leveraged his fame to assemble this glittering cast, it’s clear they have an honest fondness for him. Cult chef Danny Bowien (episode four, set in South Korea) talks lovingly about watching Emeril Live when he grew up, and Samuelsson can’t help but throw down a hearty “bam!” when plating his food. The series almost seems like a victory lap for Lagasse, as he soaks in the praise from others, evincing a status many viewers might not know he’s achieved. He's humble throughout, but even he can’t resist belting a “bam!” or two along the way; when no one is looking he even kicks one pan of food up a notch by tossing in extra garlic.
There may be only so many ways of doing food TV, but if Lagasse continues calling in favors, watching the best chefs in the world make him food while clapping him on the back is as good a way as any.