In the last couple of years or so the quality of Netflix’s original programming has surpassed not only the majority of traditional network and cable output, but Netflix themselves. Rather than churn out low-quality, low-cost films and shows to meet the needs of their customers, Netflix took an unexpected route — creating (and/or distributing) unique, high-quality entertainment which consistently surprises. Cooked is one of the latest entries on this ever-growing list.
Cooked is based on Michael Pollan’s 2013 bestselling book of the same name, which roughly traces the practice of cooking throughout human history, from the first roasted meat to our modern abhorrence to the once cherished activity. Along the way, he details his own mission to learn how to cook using traditional methods. The book and documentary mini-series is broken up into chapters/episodes with each of the four elements (fire, water, air, earth) serving as an overall theme. Each episode closely examines one particular culture that carries on the traditions of old, while talking about the element/cooking style more broadly from both a scientific and cultural standpoint. His mission is a passionate anthropological one, but with a clear bias in favor of a return to the kitchen in the US.
For a fairly simple show about food and cooking, Cooked has breathtaking cinematography. Some segments look like they came out of Planet Earth or Life, with crisp visuals and attention to shot composition. In the first episode, which contains a story of aboriginal tribes scorching some of the bush to hunt large lizards, the juxtaposition of the orange-reds of the Australian desert, the greens of the bush, and blues of the sky are magnificent. A sequence in “Air” allows us to follow a boy snaking through the alleys of Morocco carrying a tray of dough on its way to the neighborhood baker, who maintains center position in the frame in an expertly executed Stedicam shot. There’s also the numerous slow motion frontal shots of pots of cooking food which are reminiscent of Nathan Myhrvold’s photography (no surprise given that he is one of the interviewees). This is not your typical documentary series.
The downside to Cooked is that it often gets preachy, which can turn off many viewers who don’t already subscribe to the beliefs of its creators. Often issues of whole and organic foods versus processed, corporate foods are placed on left and right of the political spectrum. Pollan advocates for a return to a more “real” food diet for its health benefits, as well as for its connection to the whole of human history prior to the modern age. He sees cooking as something that is inherently human, and an act of love, but a couple of lengthy sequences of anti-hyper-processing may push some people away from the overall positive, and informative, message. The show could have done with more of its impressive excursions into beautifully displaying international food traditions and information on the science behind food, cooking, and flavors, and less of Pollan talking to the camera explaining everything that is wrong with our system, and no real advice on how to fix it.
However, it is effective in delivering the call to action, and by the end Cooked will make you want to run to the kitchen and start chopping.