“Cooking is an endless wasteland.”
Television cooking shows are comfy. Easy. Even when they’re competitive, they’re just relaxing in their straight-forward premise: people cook food.
Hosts are likeable and well-spoken, these idealized personas you almost wish you had. Visually unreal, where the colours are saturated and vibrant like a subliminal ad for MDMA. Musical cues drop with comic timing, with the subtlety of smashing glass, boiled down into discreet moods and reactions like canned laughter in a sitcom. The cooking itself approaches make-believe, where editing inside a strict half-hour or so transforms cooking into something simple and wonderful, where hours of baking and roasting and frying melt into minutes.
Without the cost or the difficulty, TV cooking shows craft a total fantasy. They’re tuned as comfort food, depicting this world where cooking at such a high level is perfectly doable, even easy.
But like anything worthwhile, the soothing wonder of food-focused programming has been improved by the bombast of anime in Food Wars!: Shokugeki No Soma.
Food Wars is an ongoing anime adapting an ongoing manga written by Yuto Tsukeda and illustrated by Shun Saeki, with collaboration with chef Yuki Morisaki, who provides the series’ innovative recipes.
Like most anime, Food Wars follows a teenage prodigy in a high school setting – this one called Totsuki Culinary Academy, a ludicrous high school dedicated to elite cuisine. A school whose director is a grey-haired, muscular elderly samurai caricature, traditional Edo era robes and dramatic over-the-eye scar included. A school with an Elite Ten of current students, who are granted access to the school’s vast and worldly resources and, together, outrank the director himself. A school which regularly hosts ‘Cooking Battles’, where students bet their most precious possessions – even their own expulsion – in Iron Chef-like duels. It’s a world of super-elite chefs akin to mythic, Michelangelo-esque renaissance figures.
But through all this culinary lunacy, Food Wars captures the comfort and joy of the cooking show and translates it perfectly into the language of anime.
Competitive cooking programmes are inherently dramatic and tense, being straight competitions where you’re invested in the outcome, but their tension is muted by the subject matter: competitors are either professional chefs already or simply aspiring—either way, stakes are low. The length of these shows also keeps whatever ‘drama’ there is consumable and forgettable. Anime, on the other hand, as a genre, is known for its over-the-top antics. In anime, human drama is typically subdued while action-adventure plots are pushed to their absolute extremes for the sake of iconic spectacle. Their roots are in cartoons and exist to entertain.
In these ways, TV cooking and anime are a perfect match. Food Wars understands modern TV cooking as a performance, a guilty pleasure whose purpose is primarily to be entertaining.
It’s over-the-top and exciting at every turn. Its plot is fast-paced and ludicrous, its extravagant tasting ‘experiences’ excessive to match the bombastic cooking. The science of cooking is the same: Food Wars glamourizes the deeper knowledge and techniques of elite chefs. Culinary science – like the specific array of acids at the heart of umami, or the extreme intricacies of ingredient quality – are given the weight of a ‘final twist’, often hidden from viewers and characters until their dramatic reveal.
Food Wars even dramatizes the tasting experience, matching the severely-detailed monologues with scenes of complete farce: like “being caressed by angel feathers!” as the judge is served by a cloud of cupids; “a passionate embrace of love” as a judge envisions herself as a mermaid, embraced by a personified bar snack; a ‘magical girl’ transformation sequence to celebrate the combined ingredients of a successful dish. Even those without some elaborate dream attached are still these loud displays of unabashed ecstasy as the screen floods with bright shining and sparkling.
The animated format helps epitomise this cooking fantasy completely. Following the exaggerated visuals of modern TV cooking, where the culinary world is glamourized by a candy-coloured colour palette and near-pornographic direction, Food Wars pushes it even further. Dishes glisten with starlight, their delivery as unrealistically immaculate as a fast food commercial. Aromas are sparkling waves of colour, where those in contact react almost violently in their intensity, bowled over by their aromatic ‘power’. Being animated over live-action, depicted with artistic embellishment only capable in a drawn, deliberated format like anime, Food Wars embodies the reverence of cooking as a modern art form and glorifies cuisine to a new extreme.
But the most important trait that Food Wars shares with TV cooking shows is an adoration and love of food. It’s enamoured with the act of cooking and the art of cuisine. It sounds obvious, even expected, but it isn’t negligible: it’s what connects viewers on a deeper level, this shared understanding of what makes cooking so precious to so many. With each showcased dish, Food Wars revels in the depths of taste and flavour, its art and animation going toe-to-toe with this admiration, creating evocative imagery that speaks to a deep passion for cooking. Even for dishes that lose their respective competitions, the same love and respect applies: dishes are leered over, the direction indulgent, as judges dissect each dish to pieces and overflow with lavish praise.
It’s this mutual love of cuisine that Food Wars translates so perfectly. A dramatized, serialised celebration of the culinary world, its history and its masters, as much an education as it is entertainment.