If you lazily fire up an episode of Hulu’s new food travel series Eater’s Guide to the World one of these weekday nights, the format you’re immediately greeted with may seem like an obvious response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, the series is your typical food show—jumping from locale to locale with a basic theme, spotlighting chefs, diners and various pieces of delicious-looking food porn. But one thing stands out immediately, to anyone who has watched one of these shows before—there’s no host. No gregarious, high-energy warm body there to grill the diners about what makes THESE pancakes the best. No wide-grinning mouth making awkward conversation with the guy manning the flat top as he tries to focus on assembling sandwiches. No absurd, Guy Fieri-esque personality, taking a bite out of his 10,000th burger and waxing caveman poetic on how “righteous” it is. All of that is completely absent, but it’s not because of the pandemic.
Indeed, the opening moments of any Eater’s Guide to the World episode make it clear that the show was filmed before the pandemic began. The lack of a traditional host isn’t due to the difficulties of travel in 2020, but was a choice made long before. Instead, the show is sparsely (but hilariously) narrated by the dulcet tones of Maya Rudolph, who pops in and out a few sentences at a time. This choice of format may have been made simply as a method of reining in cost and simplifying filming and production—these are the realities of shooting streaming TV content, after all—but even if the format was conceived as a cost-saving measure, Hulu and Eater should still be recognized for having inadvertently hit on something that works quite well. And that’s not just because of Maya Rudolph’s considerable, inherent charm, but because this format really allows segments of Eater’s Guide to the World to feature real people expressing real feelings, rather than a TV personality artificially gushing about the greatness of each locale. When you see a regular of a restaurant praise it, you can believe what they’re saying because they patronize this place every week. It feels more like soliciting advice from friends than seeking the advice of TV producers, and it gives the series an unexpectedly emotional, serene vibe.
Case in point: “Poet of the wilderness” and slightly deranged-looking mountain man Skip, who appears in the first episode, “Dining Alone in the Pacific Northwest,” as a fish sandwich-appreciating, chainsaw wood carving regular of a small bar and grill in the tiny town of Sisters, Oregon. This guy, and the other patrons like him, are the heart and soul of Eater’s Guide to the World, offering up folksy appreciation for the little things about food, drink, and company that make life worth living. Skip never uses the phrase “mindful eating” (a different eater does, though), but it’s clear that it’s very much in his mind as he bites into a piece of potato chip-crusted trout and says the following: “When I think of food and eating it, it’s really about honoring the life of the fish. By eating it slowly, it is giving its life that my life can continue.” He seems very much like the kind of fellow who would live in a secluded cabin in the woods complete with its own observation tower, and yep … that’s how he spends his time when he’s not scouting for trees to chainsaw until they’ve been turned into buffalo carvings.
With that said, critical reception to Eater’s Guide to the World hasn’t seemed particularly warm—at least a handful of the pieces I’ve read have been writers taking broad exception to the very idea of another food travel show in general. That seems to me like an odd tack to take—why focus on the few familiar elements of a food series that are going to be universal to any food travel show, and simultaneously ignore the multitude of aspects that make this series more individualistic and distinctive? It’s like overlooking a forest of unusual trees in order to point out the most pedestrian tree you can find.
Perhaps the aspect that best highlights this series’ particular viewpoint is its hyper specific, welcoming granular theming, especially in the episodes set in the U.S. This show isn’t just sending film crews to cities or regions known for great food—they’re giving those locales very specific treatments as an excuse to highlight restaurants, chefs and customers who might be expected to fall through the cracks of other series. The NYC episode, for instance, is specifically themed around food available at the “ass crack of dawn,” between roughly 3-6 a.m. The Pacific Northwest episode focuses entirely on solo dining. And the final episode, “Taking Off in America,” focuses on restaurants that are within short distances of major U.S. airports. It’s a welcome set of more selective filters, leading to some interesting highlights in major U.S. hubs such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and D.C.
There are only 7 episodes of Eater’s Guide to the World as it currently exists, and it’s undeniably easy to breeze through them on autopilot, which can be said of much food TV—it’s the kind of thing so many of us throw on in the background of our lives. But there’s also something more memorable happening here, something that will give you pause whenever the show allows one of its kooky regulars a chance to really express how much a restaurant or a piece of food has meant to their lives. There’s value in that genuine sentiment, and if the series had a traditional, obnoxious host, I’m not sure that sentiment would ever be possible. Maybe this is how these sorts of shows should be conducted, from here on out, allowing the chefs and patrons to claim the center stage. I’m certainly interested in seeing more of it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bizarre film geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.
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