From the very beginning, it's clear the people behind Netflix's new show Cooked consider cooking one of the most essential human experiences.
"Cooking is now optional. It's not just given that we're going to cook. And it was for most people for most of history — just given you have to cook if you want to eat," says author Michael Pollan, who wrote the book on which the show is based, in the opening moments. "Cultures that once held tight to their way of eating are now finding it difficult to spend time in the kitchen. How did we get to this point? And what have we lost in the process? This is more important than people realize."
The four-episode documentary is a collaboration between Pollan, who has tackled a range of foodie topics in books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose most recent high-profile credit is the HBO Scientology documentary GoingClear.
Each episode is inspired by one of the four elements — "Fire," "Water," "Air" and "Earth" — and how they relate to food. The show travels around the world, from India to Australia to California, to examine how cooking is an essential part of humanity and what we lose as a society the farther we get from the kitchen.
The thing that becomes obvious as Cooked goes from episode to episode, from continent to continent, is how cooking is the same everywhere. They're cooking different meals over in India, but the process — the chopping, the sauteing, the stirring — has the same rhythms, the same hardships, the same positive results.
"Meat cooked over fire, you can't tell where you are in the world," Pollan says. "It's one food; it's a pig and some salt."
Throughout the show, Pollan gets into the history of food and even some science. In the "Water" episode, he points out how cooking with water is a relatively recent (about 10,000 years ago) and significant technological advancement, because for that to happen humans first had to create pots that could be heated over fire. He explains that there are many foods we couldn't eat until we figured out how to soften them and "bring them to life" with water. ("This is a big deal. It opens up a whole new palate of possible flavors. And suddenly, you have the birth of cuisine.")
One of the broad themes Pollan talks about is that patience is crucial when cooking; on a very basic level, water needs time to break down ingredients.
"Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes, and lives," he says.
We don't allow enough time for cooking, particularly Americans, who spend less time cooking than anyone anywhere else in the world. The journey into how and why this happened over the last century — TV dinners, "hyper-processed foods," the addictive nature of food created by corporations — is fascinating and upsetting. The show asks: How can we possibly maintain a diet that nourishes and enriches our lives when we're not the ones cooking our food?
Cooked combines real-world documentary shots with beautiful food scenes, like the extended shot of a see-through pot boiling with water as ingredients splash in like Olympic divers.
It's expertly made, and unlike the food porn vibe of Netflix's other original food show, Chef's Table, it's more of an eye-opener with a specific — and commendable — agenda.
Cooked somewhat chillingly warns that processed foods and the corporations that cook for us are eroding the food traditions humans have built up over centuries. In its telling, these corporations are insidious, working hard to make their food as appealing as possible to a rushed, overworked world that has convinced itself it has no time for dicing, baking, simmering.
"For the food industry, people cooking traditional foods at home is an obstacle," Pollan says. "They have a vested interest in destroying food culture and food traditions."
The questions Cooked tackles are startling, things we all should be thinking about but rarely want to.
Contact Michelle Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.