Netflix’s ‘Street Food’ Shows Why the Best Part of Food & Travel Shows Isn’t Just About the Food
Netflix’s Street Food premiered at the tail end of April, and I’ve just gotten around to giving the first two episodes a watch. From the same showrunners as Netflix’s other popular food series, Chef’s Table, the show aims to shift the focus of our mouth-watering attention to the less appreciated and much more common street food found throughout the continent of Asia; the first season’s primary focus is hinting towards future seasons where each showcases a different continent.
As one would expect, the first two episodes are based in Bangkok, Thailand and Osaka, Japan where there are (respectively) chockful of glamorous food porn shots, appetizing footage of the cooking process, and delightful clips of patrons indulging into the dishes in front of them. Like any food-centric show, the singular piece of advice that I can give before diving into the show is simple: don’t go into it hungry. Street Food excels at highlighting the international cuisine of the land across the Pacific, and awakens that primal desire deep inside all of us that always seems to crave something fried, greasy, and absolutely irresistible. Yet, it isn’t the stuff that’s on the plate that ends up being the most compelling aspect of the show. Sure, the food looks delicious and I can’t help but suddenly crave for Pad Thai after watching the first episode, but the thing that kept me watching last night was the spotlight of the people behind the food; the people who cook the food and the stories that they had to share.
At first glance, the first episode is a high-end look at the methodology behind the most famous noodle stand in Bangkok. It starts off as a highlight reel of Jay Fai, the woman who earned a Michelin star for her hard work and culinary prowess. However, as the episode goes on, it slowly unraveled how much effort Fai has had to put forth in order to get to where she is now, how much money she’s had to invest into the ingredients and equipment that she’s now known for, and how much the stand and the recognition of her work means to her—only to be offset by the revelation that the city of Bangkok is slowly displacing its street food vendors in an effort to modernize and be recognized on the global stage. It then becomes clear what the true story of the episode is. It’s a story of a city that is slowly ridding itself of its urban roots to appease a first world audience. It’s the story of a woman who is afraid of how the advancement of the place she calls home may leave her behind, and it is above all an attempt at showing Bangkok, as well as the world, why the food stands need to stay.
Yet, that’s not even getting into its second episode, which is a real tear jerker if I can be candid. We’re initially introduced to Toyoji Chikumoto, owner of Izakaya Toyo in Osaka, Japan. We’re shown snippets of his eccentric personality through interacting with customers where he is freely joking around with them, flirting with female pedestrians, and cooking over open flame with his bare hands. Then, when all the theatrics are over, the chef starts recalling his childhood in his home of Osaka. His mother passed away when he was six, and the grief sent his father on a downward spiral. He started to heavily drink, and physically abuse Toyoji. Their poor upbringing forces Toyoji to abandon eating the lunch provided by his school as his family couldn’t afford it. He recounts how he would pluck weeds on his walk home to add into his stir fry, and how flavor wasn’t the primary reasoning behind his meals, but sustenance was. As the tears fall down Toyoji’s face and I can’t contain the sniffles that escape me, we’re shown more clips of him interacting with his customers. The narration over the clips reveals that Toyoji’s goal with his food stand is to put smiles on the faces of every patron that walks by. He simply desires to make others happy; a man whose upbringing left him in constant sadness only wants to make others feel happy. If that’s not some kind of real-life poetic cinema, then I don’t know what is.
That’s the thing that defines a truly engaging food and travel show— the food isn’t the primary focus behind the show. It’s the narrative behind the food, the story of the people that make the food, and the story of the community that the food feeds. Sure, we love our simple travel shows, like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives with walking meme Guy Fieri or Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, that only talks about the dish in front of them because technically that’s what the people came for. However, the greats, like the late Anthony Bourdain, realized that there was more to it than just eating and talking about how delicious something was. It’s about providing an open table for others to join and share their experiences with. Also, with the absence of the man behind No Reservations, A Cook’s Tour, and Parts Unknown, it seems that others are finally starting to step up and continue his legacy.
Eddie Huang and his show, Huang’s World, is a heavyweight contender for my favorite food and travel show currently airing. What started as a simple web series on Vice’s YouTube channel, actually gained massive acclaim and support from the community, as well as elevated itself to a time slot on the Viceland television broadcast channel. Huang’s World constantly explores the narrative of the community in those locations who have stories to tell, and whose stories need to be told through the lens of food; as food is one of the most unifying factors in a society. While other shows from Viceland, such as F**k, That’s Delicious with Action Bronson and Dead Set on Life with Matty Matheson, seem to be equally popular to Huang’s World, they tend to come off as simple food shows with hosts that have magnetic personalities. Don’t get me wrong, I love Matty Matheson as much as the next person, but it seems to me that Huang is the only one with something to say. Not to mention, Netflix’s Ugly Delicious with David Chang attempts to make the argument that presentation doesn’t need to be vital to the enjoyment of food, especially comfort food.
Therefore, food isn’t the only lens through which this type of thought-provoking travel show can succeed. Netflix’s Fightworld, with actor Frank Grillo as the host, set out on a similar mission, but instead of food, it was through the lens of different fighting styles and fight cultures around the world. It showcased female empowerment and rehabilitation through Mexican boxing, explored adolescent teens sacrificing everything in the ring to create a better life for their family with Muay Thai, and discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Krav Maga. Unfortunately, Netflix made the decision not to renew the travel show for a second season. However, I still highly recommend giving the first season a watch; it’s only five episodes, but provides an interesting look at the world surrounding MMA.
All in all, Netflix’s Street Food is another compelling entry into a shortlist of food and travel shows that hit the mark. While others meander around and rely too heavily on shock value or mouth stuffing to provide any kind of lasting impact on the viewer, other than empty calories, Street Food (and others like it) take the stance that there is more to the narrative other than what’s on the plate. It receives my recommendation, and I hope that it sets the bar for how other food and travel shows start to shape themselves going forward.
-Derek Luat Tran