Forty seconds into Selena Gomez’s quarantine cooking show, Selena + Chef (debuting on HBO Max today), she opens the door to her house, finds two perfect trendy burlap and canvas grocery bags of food, and as she picks them up to bring them inside, deadpans, “So this is what I’m burning today.”
So begins what may be the most delightful series of the quarantine—and I am as surprised as anyone.
Remember how you were going to use this time trapped at home to learn a new skill? Well, when you’re a star you can sell that idea to a streaming network. The news of Gomez’s cooking show, back in May, felt like a harbinger of some challenging days ahead for the entertainment industry. Production had shut down and it was likely unsafe to resume. We were going back to the 1930s pluckiness of “Hey, let’s put on a show! Time to fix up that old barn and put up a stage!” Which seemed appropriate given the Depression-era vibes of the pandemic, yet with an ultramodern twist of the barn being a star’s new $4.9 million home in Encino, California, that was formerly owned by the rocker Tom Petty.
When comedian Amy Schumer debuted her quarantine cooking show a week after Gomez announced her series, the fact that it was a bit of a dog’s breakfast didn’t exactly inspire confidence that Gomez could transcend the inherent limitations of both home-based production and a format that hasn’t seen a lot of innovation in its 80 years on television.
Gomez, then, was starting in a bit of a hole.
But what she and her team figured out was that Selena + Chef should not merely be just a cooking show but also a comedy. (Curious that Schumer, a professional comedian who normally makes tens of millions a year touring and has played Madison Square Garden, did not crack this egg, but let’s leave that aside for now.) Gomez is playing the role of every enthusiastic but unskilled chef who decided to try to up their game during the last several months, and her practiced vulnerability—of the sort that helped her build her 186-million-strong Instagram following—allows her to be silly in a way that produces some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments throughout the three episodes made available to reviewers.
Gomez definitely knows it, too, as at one point in the first episode she says, “Then again, I signed up to look like a fool on HBO Max.”
Selena + Chef, then, is like Nailed It! if the host were also the only contestant (and actually more skilled in the kitchen than she lets on).
HBO Max and Gomez did several things right to make Selena + Chef a success. First, the production value is astonishingly good. So much so that Gomez turns on the 4K cameras all over her kitchen at the start of each episode. Then, pairing Gomez with a big-time Los Angeles chef who’s helping her remotely gives each episode its own vibe and adds another person who can either set up Gomez’s comedic moments or create their own. This became clear in the first episode when chef Ludo Lefebvre appears to be aghast at Gomez’s knife set (the blades are rainbow-colored), and when Gomez actually bests him in the making of a dish.
Gomez also appears to be quarantining with her grandparents and several friends, giving her additional comic foils. When Chef Ludo instructs Gomez to test the stiffness of her whipped egg whites by turning the bowl upside down over her head, she tests it out on her grandfather. In the second episode, when she has to wrangle with a whole octopus, her girlfriends amplify the squeamishness. Finally, Gomez wisely has arranged to have the show donate $10,000 to each chef’s favorite charity, which adds a nice grace note to the whole enterprise.
Selena + Chef is not going to replace some big-budget fantasy epic that’s currently on hold in perpetuity. But for a bit of late-night comfort food—and Gomez as your game avatar in the kitchen learning how to make a French omelet or ramen—it’s delicious.