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Anyone Can(’t) Cook

Popular cooking shows often spotlight culinary talent, but new celebrity-oriented series like ‘Cooking With Paris’ and ‘Selena + Chef’ almost celebrate incompetence

Netflix/Ringer illustration

If there’s one quality that unites the worlds of celebrity and food, it’s aspiration. Kim Kardashian West and Ina Garten may have very different skill sets, but we follow each for the same reason: We want to be a little more like them, whether it’s buying their shapewear or purchasing their cookbooks. These women have some skill (good style, dextrous knife work, a highly developed sense of selfie geometry) they promise to impart to the masses, typically in exchange for attention or money.

It’s little wonder, then, that the two categories have increasingly merged. Both the starlet and the figure known as the domestic goddess are, in modern parlance, brands. (Unlike a chef, a domestic goddess makes food in her home, not a restaurant; unlike many chefs, she’s also a woman speaking to an assumed audience of other women.) Said brands are built on a shared turf: social media, where domestic goddesses show the personality behind the plate and celebrities invite us into their homes, albeit on their terms. Overlap is efficient, and likely inevitable. Some of the most successful domestic goddesses of the past decade are celebrities, and vice versa. Gwyneth Paltrow started on our screens before migrating to our kitchens; Joanna Gaines, whose empire includes the bestselling Magnolia Table, has gone from starring on HGTV to running her own network. But while the criteria for this kind of fame have changed, one hasn’t: expertise, or at least the ability to pass off luck, innate skill, and privilege as a teachable talent.

That is, it hasn’t changed until now. Since the launch of Chef’s Table on Netflix in 2015, the streaming service has gone all in on food shows, from competitions to travelogues to basic how-tos. But its latest lacks what was once considered a basic prerequisite of the form: a host who knows how to cook. “I love cooking, but I’m not a trained chef,” Paris Hilton croaks in her signature vocal fry. “And I’m not trying to be!” She’s introducing Cooking With Paris, the six-episode series that shows the hotel heiress turned reality star in a highly unnatural habitat: her kitchen.

In January 2020, Hilton uploaded a 16-minute clip to YouTube in which she resolves to make lasagna. Hilton claims she grew up making pasta dinners with her mother, Kathy, who appears as a friend of the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills; she also freely admits this is the first time she’s ever used her current kitchen and doesn’t know where the utensils are, or even which ones she owns. Far more than her actual lasagna, it’s Hilton’s cheery ignorance that turned the video into a viral sensation—and now, a full-fledged TV show. Cooking With Paris may feature famous guests, a bigger budget, and better cinematography, but Hilton’s culinary skills have hardly improved. “Why does this keep turning brown?” she asks Kardashian, her first guest, as the two make French toast. “It’s just cooking,” Kim replies.

With her iconic catchphrases, surprising post–Simple Life longevity, and intuitive understanding of fame, Hilton is a singular figure in popular culture. (In a testament to her enduring appeal, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Gottmik won the latest season’s Snatch Game challenge by impersonating Hilton, with whom he’d also worked with as a makeup artist.) But she’s not alone in starting a cooking show before she’s actually learned how to dice an onion. During quarantine, pop star Selena Gomez launched Selena + Chef, a remote-friendly show with a self-explanatory concept: Each episode pairs Gomez with a different food world luminary, who then teaches her to make a new dish via video conference. Aired on HBO Max, Selena + Chef was such a hit that it’s already aired a second season and been renewed for a third.

Selena + Chef is a more wholesome affair than Cooking With Paris, a contrast that’s partly a function of time. Conceived in the early days of quarantine, Selena + Chef echoes the experience of anyone stuck at home with too few life skills and too much time on their hands. (It’s also an earnest piece of advocacy, spotlighting both embattled restaurants and the charities chefs plug at the end of every episode.) The idea is, in a way, democratic: Most viewers may not relate to Gomez’s pristine, palatial kitchen, but they can identify with struggling to learn the fundamentals, a process every cook has to undergo at some point or another—many of them in early 2020. Julia Child has guided many a novice through breaking down their first chicken. In this spin on the familiar setup, Gomez is the novice, an avatar for the viewer at home as she scrambles to pit an avocado or slice a leek. She isn’t teaching us; she’s learning alongside us.

Of course, there’s quite a lot that separates Gomez from the typical fan. Such is the paradox of this new kind of celebrity cooking show: an inherent tension between the celebrity as relatable proxy and the celebrity as clueless, out-of-touch alien species. After all, stars aren’t just like us—that’s the whole point of having stars. Some aspects of Selena + Chef seem designed to emphasize that the singer and her audience are navigating the same strange situation. (A situation that is, in and of itself, a sign of privilege; the essential workers who deposit grocery bags on Gomez’s doorstep don’t have the luxury of lockdown boredom.) Gomez’s grandparents make frequent cameos, as do friends-turned-roommates, a reminder of the unorthodox, often multigenerational living setups many resorted to in quarantine. Other aspects of the show are less universal. A running gag has Gomez unable to locate the convection button on her massive stove; meanwhile, I haven’t had access to an oven with convection in my entire adult life.

In Amy Schumer Learns to Cook, the comic has an easier time navigating this contradiction. The Food Network production from last spring is the most bare bones and lo-fi of the microgenre, capturing Schumer and husband Chris Fischer with little more than a couple of cameras, one handheld by their nanny. Fischer is a professional chef, making Amy Schumer Learns to Cook an imperfect example of the trend; at least someone on set knows their way around a prep station. But Schumer plays the self-described “dumb white girl” she always has in her stand-up, making her performance of hapless domesticity more convincing than most. “Everybody has their own thing going on, and we’re just trying to make you guys laugh,” Schumer explains in the first episode, in which Fischer makes latkes while Schumer playfully ribs him.

Hilton takes the opposite tack. At the beginning of every episode, we watch her strut in full glam through a Los Angeles–area grocery store, palming onions while squatting in sky-high stilettos. After a few seconds of slow-mo straight out of a music video, we abruptly cut to the unedited reality, where Hilton wanders the local farmer’s market sans music or filter. The implication is clear: This is all artifice, a farce Hilton embraces with the enthusiasm she otherwise reserves for making “sliving”—a portmanteau of “slaying” and “living your life”—the new “that’s hot.” Hilton collects her recipes in a bound volume that looks more like Regina George’s Burn Book than Joy of Cooking; she writes everything out by hand in rainbow font, because monochrome bores her. As a host, she doesn’t even pretend to be as interested in the food as she is in the elaborately on-theme decor. Kardashian’s breakfast comes festooned with white balloons; for a taco night with rapper Saweetie, Hilton decks out the dining room to look like Tulum, one of her favorite vacation spots.

Hilton’s ineptitude, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem like a put-on. (She makes ample use of pre-grated cheese—nails on the chalkboard to any food snob worth their Himalayan pink salt.) But where Selena + Chef is an earnest act of discovery, Cooking With Paris embraces the idea of the put-on for its own sake. In doing so, it exposes the truth at the heart of most cooking shows, not just the ones fronted by celebrity amateurs: Nine times out of 10, we’re barely watching for the food at all. We can’t actually eat Hilton’s Christmas turkey, and it’s doubtful we would if we had the chance. But we can watch her be Paris Hilton, which is all we really wanted in the first place. The expertise is just an extra.