So last week I went to see Wonka with some pals. It was good! I liked it a lot, especially with the enhancement of a weed gummy, and especially because I snuck a single See's Candy (milk chocolate butterscotch square) into the theater, to deploy at the time I wanted a specially crafted candy the most (about halfway through).
I went home still stoned and it was early enough to keep watching some kind of entertainment product on a screen. I had television choice paralysis until, after some scrolling, I unexpectedly and fortuitously landed on Selena + Chef: Home for the Holidays. Similar to Wonka, it promised a whimsical food theme with an alluring host.
Do you remember 2020? I kind of do. In the summer of 2020, pop star and Only Murders in the Building actor Selena Gomez premiered a short television series on what was then known as HBO Max, in which she, over a complex setup of Zoom video calls and what looked like a pretty slick remote camera system, leveled up her culinary novice status and learned how to cook chefworthy meals under the tutelage of actual celeb chefs. It might have been the most Covid-core release of the year. I watched one of these episodes, and can mainly recall French chef Ludo Lefevre hollering over Zoom at Selena in a horrified French tone: Selena! I have burned my omelette!
Selena + Chef has had four seasons on HBO since its premiere, and Home for the Holidays is the fifth content drop — this time airing on Food Network. The big time! Linear television! I put on the first episode, which features chef Alex Guarnaschelli (who has cooked many foods in many different contexts, but you probably know her best as a Chopped judge) teaching Selena how to make a holiday roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, with peppermint bark for dessert.
After watching a single episode of this show, Selena Gomez has skyrocketed to the top of my pop star interest chart, because no normal pop star would ever release something like this. It is some of the strangest and rawest reality television I have ever seen.
Selena wears a crisp white dress, in a popular style of the past several years — it has a ruched neckline and puffy sleeves and looks like a milkmaid would wear it. She wears this dress in the kitchen with no protective apron, even as she stirs tomato sauce and dumps mozzarella sticks in boiling oil. It stays pristine the entire shoot.
Everyone on set seems pleasantly dazed. Why are we here? What is happening? Food, apparently. For the holidays! There was a social media influencer on an old snark subreddit I used to frequent that everyone referred to as "lobotomy goals", and while that was pretty mean, it has stuck with me as a mood and aesthetic, and I think Selena + Chef fits into the concept of lobotomy goals, in a good way.
Alex Guarnaschelli tosses off various quips that make me believe she is very grateful to the Food Network for various opportunities but also has been completely exhausted by the food competition industrial complex. "I never get to do the relaxing cooking shows," she says (I am paraphrasing), "they usually put me on a mountaintop and ask me to cook a shrimp dish in five minutes" (I am still paraphrasing). We should let Alex have a nice normal cooking show of her own rather than the high-octane Food Network shows of yore.
Alex also comments several times on Selena's stacked kitchen gadget lineup. Selena has every kind of pot and pan you could ask for. Whoever was in charge of stocking her cupboards did a fantastic job. She asks for a vegetable peeler for potatoes and Selena has four different kinds of vegetable peelers. "Why do you have this many peelers?" Alex asks. "I want to make sure every chef has exactly what they need," Selena says (I am still paraphrasing...take every quote with a grain of salt, I didn't take great notes, because of the marijuana gummy).
I cannot stress how terrified Selena looks to be doing most cooking tasks. Her shakiness seems genuine. She cuts an onion and it looks as though she may chop off a fingernail with it. Her confidence does build through the episode, likely bolstered by uproarious praise for tasks like sauteeing onions.
If you are wondering whether the music of Selena Gomez features in this show — sometimes they play a little clip of it as interstitial music, over b-roll of a tree or a present or something.
After Alex compliments Selena on her positive energy in the kitchen, Selena says she is distracted from the proceedings because she has a crush on someone. What is happening? I cannot tell if Selena's infatuation has been a common theme across seasons of Selena + Chef, or if she's sending a secret message out to a special someone in particular. The crush is acknowledged and then never brought up again.
Selena also has a friend who helps her with the cooking on the show. This friend is named Raquelle. Raquelle cannot stop eating little bits and pieces of the food as it's cooking. Her mouse-like nibbling is a major plot point of the show. She keeps stealing pinches of the cheese she is supposed to be grating. Also Alex only assigns Raquelle the task of grating different cheeses. Selena is on sautée station with the big boys.
Alex claims the mashed potatoes they are making are so good that they can precede, or perhaps be used as a component of, sexual intercourse. The potatoes contain whipped cream, which fascinates Selena. "What did you do today?" she asks an imaginary person (her crush, maybe) as she stirs. "I put whipped cream in mashed potatoes."
I just looked up whether Selena has a boyfriend and apparently she recently "went public" with music producer Benny Blanco, who has produced many popular songs...including a minimalist, softly Latin bop featuring Selena Gomez, Tainy and J Balvin called "I Can't Get Enough" that I hadn't heard of until now. Selena Gomez is very good at being nice and calm whilst singing. One of her strong suits — while others are called to the histrionic or melodramatic, Selena keeps it lowkey and low stress.
Back to the show. Selena's adorable 10-year-old sister Gracie makes an appearance to help with the peppermint bark, and after the chocolate gets drizzled, she cheekily hijacks the show: "Hello, this is my cooking show called Cooking With Chaos." Selena blanches comedically. "No...don't do what I do," she says, dry as a bone. "Become a doctor."
(I just looked up Gracie and apparently she makes "Cooking With Chaos" TikToks with Kim Kardashian's daughter North West? I am made of ash and dry leaves and soon a strong wind will blow my silt away into nothingness.)
At one point, Selena stands by herself at the stove, stirring gravy. "I love gravy," she murmurs.
When Alex asks if Selena has a gravy boat to put the gravy in, Selena scrunches up her face and wonders aloud if she's actually the type of girl to have a gravy boat. Raquelle goes offscreen and returns with a pristine white gravy boat. The existence of this gravy boat seems to rock Selena to her core.
Selena + Chef actually points out something very interesting about cooking, which is how difficult it can be. Alex gives her a real workout. Techniques include: mashing, deglazing, reducing, sauteeing, seasoning, roasting....TEMPERING CHOCOLATE! It's fascinating to see the complexity of cooking laid bare through the perspective of someone who has probably eaten 80% of her meals at craft services since she was 7 years old in the cast of Barney. Selena is very brave for putting herself out there, culinarily.
And this is the big W of the show. I generally think of Selena's pop stardom as one of premium vessel-ship. She is like a beautiful vase into which hit songs are poured. Her restraint, taste and delicate uniqueness are her signatures. I'm thinking about the way she pronounces "good" in the song "Good For You" ("guid"). I'm thinking of her sexy laissez-faireness in "Come & Get It" (na na na na). I'm thinking of her delivering lines like "your metaphorical gin and juice" and "Just like the battle of Troy, there's nothing subtle here" with total poker-faced sincerity. My favorite Selena Gomez song is "It Ain't Me," her collab with Kygo, which references the band The Libertines. Selena has never been asked whether she likes The Libertines because I don't think anyone really wants the answer. The referencing of Pete Doherty's bad boy band is entirely beside the point. The important thing is to skip forward to Selena's chopped up syllables in that bouncy and endless chorus: Bow-bow-bow-bowery.
This show adds an entirely new facet to her identity, at least to me, a Selena appreciator but not a full Selenator. Being this goofy on television — putting fifteen mozzarella sticks in the boiling oil when she was only supposed to put three or four, pouring creamy potatoes into a serving vessel with the concentration of a brain surgeon — is an unexpected but great choice for someone who is so damn smooth on tape. It adds a bit of texture to her persona. She's like an Aubrey Plazafied Lucille Ball, somehow both deadpan and silly at the same time. Sometimes she looks like she was bonked over the head with a mallet and has no idea why she's in a brightly-lit kitchen — her kitchen — rubbing freshly cracked black pepper on a gigantic hunk of raw beef, on camera. And yet when she receives praise for doing something right, her smile lights up the room. Her charisma is legible in a totally extramusical way, which is a huge feat for someone who has operated within the confines of the Hit Factory for her entire career and life. Selena + Chef is just like Selena's music: while you get the feeling that none of this production was necessarily her idea to begin with, she shines in the execution.