starstruck by the tools

I’m Obsessed With This Show Where Celebrities Nervously Cook Elaborate Dishes

Photo: Bon Appétit

I’ve been told the entire point of reality TV is that it is pleasantly diverting. It’s an escape, they say; a way to detach, they say; a way to forget your troubles as you bask beneath the blank, chilling stare of Neil Lane, they say. (“They” are my friends, who are normal and enjoy normal things.) Unfortunately, I have mostly found reality TV to be a harrowing experience.

I’m specifically incapable of responding appropriately to reality TV that includes a competitive aspect. Nothing is more stressful to me than accidentally catching four minutes of The Bachelor. Suddenly I’m very concerned about Britni and her small son Brando, who is living in his grandmother’s detached garage while Britni desperately vies for the affection of Cob, and whose father perished in a tragic scooter accident off the coast of Ireland. The last time I sat in the room while my boyfriend watched the Restaurant Wars episode of Top Chef, I had to lie down for an hour.

If you, like me, are an embarrassing person who finds healthy human competition upsetting instead of fun, but who is also eager to find the sort of cathartic brain death experienced by those around you, I have good news for you. It’s called Back to Back Chef, and it is a perfect show.

Calling it a “show” is generous, I suppose, because Back to Back Chef is a series of 12 videos posted on YouTube over the course of a year by Bon Appétit. But in the interest of demonstrating respect for my favorite show, I’m going to call it a show. Here is what happens on Back to Back Chef, a show that, I’m sorry to admit, was first served to me via Instagram ad last winter: A celebrity — often startlingly famous — comes to Bon Appétit’s test kitchen. Carla Lalli Music, Bon Appétit’s food director, who I cannot bear to describe in a single sentence, teaches them how to cook a very elaborate dish in 15 minutes flat. But there’s a catch! The celebrity and Carla Lalli Music cannot look at each other once while they cook. They must be … back to back. Do you see?

(The first few episodes of Back to Back Chef do not follow this exact format — instead, Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, and Gordon Ramsay teach an “amateur chef” to make something. I’ve never watched these episodes and I never want to.)

This conceit is simple, elegant, and absolutely genius. Here’s why: The stakes are completely nonexistent. There is no actual conflict, just the vague outline of a totally fake conflict; both outcomes to the episode are equally pleasing. Can Natalie Portman make a vegan carpaccio while standing back-to-back with a professional chef? If she can, that’s cool! If she can’t, who freakin cares? The moment she stops shaving radicchio onto raw coconut, she is Natalie Portman again. Meanwhile, on Top Chef, if Nini fucks up the front of the house, her entire life is ruined. (Disclosure: I watched this episode for 20 minutes and have no idea what happens to Nini.)

But here is where Back to Back Chef transcends the realm of the quotidian and gallops into the realm of the gorgeously surreal: Natalie Portman does seem to care if she can make a vegan carpaccio while standing back to back with a professional chef. I can’t say why with total certainty, but I think it’s because the whole thing represents an aggressive (erotic?) shift in power dynamics. In the actual world, celebrities almost always have the upper hand. They’re rich and hot and they have yards, both in the front and the back of their houses. On Back to Back Chef, their richness, hotness, and multiple yards matter not. They are, briefly and by their own design (hence the eroticism), vulnerable — humbled in the presence of a stove, different-sized bowls, a hearty burner, and Carla Lalli Music’s effortless chopping skills. They cannot charm the vegetable peeler with a series of well-practiced talking points and a $40,000 grin (I read somewhere that this is how much Tom Cruise paid for his teeth); they cannot will a steak to taste good by paying it off. In a sense, they are the least famous thing in the kitchen; the only real celebrity is science. They are subs to science.

As such, the celebs appear, at all times, desperate to prove themselves. (To Carla, to us, to God.) It’s a delight to behold. Every time Carla Lalli Music says something like, “cut straight down into the flesh right on top of the bone,” the guests look directly at the camera and bug out their eyes with terror. Troye Sivan, who makes a chicken under a brick, says he is “so starstruck by all of the tools.” Natalie, who is made to put on lab goggles and hammer open a coconut, is so nervous she can’t remember if she is a lefty or a righty. She whispers “oh jeez” multiple times; when she finally opens her coconut she screams, “Oh yes!! It happened!” Even Alessia Cara abandons her disaffected cool to make what Carla calls “horror movie noises” when she’s asked to twist a lobster in half. RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Shangela, my absolute favorite guest, treats churro-making like a low-key performance. At one point, she asks Carla, “Is the sugar the one that looks like salt?” And later, when prompted to use a pan: “Which one’s the pan?”

Now, I would be remiss if I did not devote an entire paragraph in this piece to Carla Lalli Music, whose name I like to type in full because it’s so great. If you say it very fast, it sounds like “Carlalalalala Music.” Come on. Carla is like no other host I have ever seen: she is adorable but not aggressively made-up, she’s witty but not in a way that robs the spotlight from Shangela, she is so calm it’s confusing, her hair is in a little bun, she has good clogs, and most importantly, she does not seem to care whether or not she is a TV (“TV”) host. Carla is very obviously self-actualized. She never seems starstruck, but neither is she too prideful to let on that she is excited about making a mixed-veggie tempura with Marvel’s own Wanda Maximoff. She is very good at showing someone how to debone an entire chicken using only her words. What I’m trying to say is Carla is my wife.

At the end of each episode, Carla and her celebrity guest trade dishes, eat each other’s meals, then rate them on a scale from one to ten. I can’t make that not sound sexual, and that’s because, in a large sense, it is. How does Carla know when to tell a celebrity that their dish (clearly a five) is a nine, and when to tell them that it is a ten? How does Carla know with absolute confidence that Ellie Kemper is not going to light her eyebrows on fire while making a crêpe? What strain is Carla smoking? I need to know.

But most of all, I love Carla and Back to Back Chef for the incidental and brazen confidence the show instills in its viewers. Carla’s Early Matthew McConaughey–esque attitude toward cooking eventually does quiet the raw, visceral fear of each of her guests, and it has the same exact function for me, a woman who recently made biscuits so poorly that people on the internet got mad at me. By the end of each episode, I am completely convinced that not only could I be a chef, I could also be a celebrity standing back-to-back with a chef, pretending to be a chef, for approximately 15 minutes.

I’m Obsessed With This Show Where Celebrities Nervously Cook