David Chang is no stranger to TV. He’s been popping up on the various travel and food shows hosted by his friends, judging televised cooking contests, and making late-night appearances for the better part of two decades. Last year, the acclaimed Momofuku chef finally took the reigns of his own show over at Netflix, Ugly Delicious. It was a mostly-well-received romp through food cultures around the world, with Chang in the driver’s seat.
This year, Chang has another show at Netflix that, while still centered around food and travel, carries a wholly different feel. Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner finds Chang playing the passenger while four celebrity guests take turns leading him around cities they love. It’s an interesting conceit — travel TV that lets the guest do the heavy lifting. Chang and his guest meet in the morning, have breakfast, chat, lunch, chat, snack, chat, dinner, chat, and finally part ways. The idea is that this all happens over a single day to the point that each episode literally shows Chang waking up in the morning to head out the door.
It’s a cool enough idea. A direct descendant of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover. But as the episodes flicker past, you know that you’re either being tricked (what film crew could jam all those setups into a day?) or deliberately confused. When Chang meets Chrissy Tiegen in Marrakesh for a day there are clear wardrobe changes. How did they make time for getting changed with so much eating and walking to do?
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Chang’s new concept. Making an engaging travel and food show is hard enough work when there isn’t a time constraint. Outliers like Anthony Bourdain made it look easy but, really, even he had a complex set of rules and structures in place that made his episodes flow. There were always fixers and people managing every shoot right out of frame.
Which is all just to say, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner is a fun, engaging concept but a difficult one. No wonder there are times when you can feel Chang looking for footing.
The series opens with Chang meeting comedy legend Seth Rogen in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. The duo bro out for a millisecond and immediately start smoking weed in a park — which is perfectly on-brand for Rogen. Then the duo are off — chasing down some of Rogen’s old Van-city haunts like food market doughnut shops and Chinese restaurants. Rogen makes frequent stops around town for the two to spark up more and more joints. They go fishing and eat more. Rogen talks about his life making movies and growing up in Vancouver.
It’s engaging, especially if you’re a Seth Rogen fan. But be warned, there are long stretches of the two just laughing at each other’s quips. Also just laughing in general (they are stoned, remember).
Next, Chang flies all the way to Morocco to meet model-online celebrity Chrissy Teigen for a day around Marrakesh. Similar to the first episode, the thrust of the show is very introspective with Chang and Teigen discussing life on social media and their experiences with celebrity culture, while eating an array of foods we don’t always get a grip on in places that are very beautiful. While Teigen is enrapturing as a guest, it’s still clear that Chang and Co. are figuring out what this show is supposed to be besides Chang hanging out with his buds in a beautiful locale.
Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner finds its footing when Chang meets up with actress-writer Lena Waithe in Los Angeles. The one-day conceit is still fully “in place” but as he and Waithe plow through five meals, it’s becoming obvious that this being a “day” is a loose concept at best. Still, Waithe is a great city-guide for Los Angeles and is able to really dig into her world with abandon, giving the show a real travelogue feel for the first time.
But it’s not until Kate McKinnon’s final episode drops that the whole show comes into focus. Chang flies to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to meet up with the SNL superstar. McKinnon is immediately on point as an erudite vagabond — looking at the world through the eyes of someone who is socially conscious, culturally curious, and hungry for new experiences. As the format dictates, McKinnon takes over the show’s hosting duties, leading Chang between chaotic markets and unique food experiences. Along the way, she runs interviews with locals and journalists in a way that reveals an alchemical blend of wonder, intelligence, empathy, and humor.
Why exactly does McKinnon stand out so much? It’s the little things. She makes eye contact with the people she speaks to in a way that puts the interviewee at ease and engages the viewer. She’s outside of herself and engaged, she didn’t come to Cambodia just to navel-gaze. She isn’t afraid to be opinionated (her hate of tomato ketchup is visceral), but there’s an inquisitiveness that just works for a travel host.
Oh, and she’s hilarious and raw; refreshing and comforting at the same time. Sound like anyone we know?
Obviously, Kate McKinnon isn’t Anthony Bourdain. But it’s also obvious that she’s absorbed something from his persona and format that’s eluded so many imitators. All the “little” things in the paragraph above are a lot to juggle when hosting a travel and food show. Lose one of those components and it all starts to feel a little wobbly. Lose two or more and the audience will have a hard time connecting in the first place.
Watching McKinnon talk about her life while fully engaging in the world around her is both revelatory about the person and revelatory about the place. That’s the secret. It’s a balance that’s almost impossible to achieve and she makes it look easy.
So what about Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner? It’s a very high-concept travel show shot in four episodes. It’s allowed to find its footing a bit as it goes. Better that than the era of travel TV when there were no risks. Go back and watch Bourdain’s original series, A Cook’s Tour, and you’ll see rough edges there too. That doesn’t for a second mean it’s not worth the ride.
Our advice: Spark up, sink into the couch, and watch David Chang hang with celebrities and eat a crazy amount of food in “a day.” But maybe watch Kate McKinnon’s episode twice. Once to take it all in and once to get excited about the travel show she’ll one day star in.
You can stream all four episodes of Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner on October 23rd, 2019, on Netflix.