A cooking competition that tasks chefs with making brunch — the No. 1 most dreaded meal in most professional kitchens — at first sounds like a recipe for Sisyphean pain. In the hands of “Schitt’s Creek” co-creator Dan Levy, however, “The Big Brunch” immediately establishes itself as the total opposite of that bleak picture, with its emphasis on congeniality and warmth above all else. Leaning on the latter-day “Schitt’s” ideals of staying true to oneself, this gentle twist on a “Top Chef” formula doesn’t exactly bring the drama — but for those craving something with less bite, “The Big Brunch” should prove harder to resist than that one last mimosa.
The eight-episode series (premiering Nov. 10 on HBO Max) opens with Levy introducing 10 contestants who are “each making a big difference in their community,” though only one will win the final (and impressively large) prize of $300,000. Here, “The Big Brunch” establishes altruism as its ultimate goal. Over time, though, its definition of what “making a difference” means varies wildly from person to person, making it hard not to judge one chef’s dream against another. Opening a pop-up bakery during the early days of COVID is impressive, but does that person “deserve” the money more than, say, the chef hoping to buy the impoverished church that hosts his neighborhood garden and meals for the needy? It’s not the fault of either contestant that their stories end up pitted against each other, but should the show see a second season, it’d do well to make sure its casting and mission statement are better aligned.
Confusing though its broader aims can be, “The Big Brunch” finds a groove as a cooking competition show much more quickly. Given his years of hosting experience (including the tonally similar “Great Canadian Baking Show”), Levy’s charm comes as no surprise as he assumes the driver’s seat. Joining him as judges are restaurateur Will Guidara (formerly of Eleven Madison Park) and prolific recipe developer Sohla El-Waylly, with El-Waylly in particular showing just how comfortable and knowledgeable she is both as a chef and as an on-screen authority. Just as important in the balance of things is David Korins’ glittering set design, which features a kitchen decked out in sky-blue tile, a Parisian bistro-esque dining room and bar to host the judges (and their brunch cocktails), and a sliding partition separating the two when it’s time for deliberations. Even knowing it had to be a set and not a real kitchen, I still felt a shock midway through the season when the cast walked off it and into the parking lot for an impromptu farmers market.
As for the brunch of it all, the brief thankfully proves more versatile than not. What could have just been a parade of egg preparations is instead a celebration of family-style meals and the different traditions that can make the midday meal so important. There may be only so many ways to serve up brunch, so a second season would have to find yet more innovative ideas to stretch the premise. Given how it handled these first eight episodes, though, “The Big Brunch” has earned its place at the next table.
“The Big Brunch” premieres with three episodes on Thursday, Nov. 10.
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