Calum Henderson tunes into Netflix's batch of cooking docos, and wonders why every meal has to be an art form.

As someone who finds the supposedly simple task of following Nadia Lim's My Food Bag recipes a bewildering ordeal, you could say I have a love-hate relationship with cooking.

I'm precisely the kind of person American academic Michael Pollan is describing at the start of his four-part Netflix series Cooked when he observes, "The less time we invest in cooking ourselves, the more time we seem to spend watching other people cooking on television."

Too right. I could sit for hours in front of Jamie and Nigella, but rather than being instructional, it's more like a grown-up equivalent of Peppa Pig - nice pictures stimulating some primal urge deep inside my brain.

Have we, the human race, simply gone off the rails?


"We are the only species that cooks," says Pollan, who's been writing, thinking and talking about food most of his working life. "When we learned to cook we became truly human."

With Cooked, based on his 2013 book, Pollan encourages us to think more about our food - where it comes from, the role it plays in our lives and culture, that kind of thing. In this way it feels less like a cooking show than it does a series of lectures, albeit ones with beautiful cinematography.

Each hour-long episode is based around one of the four classical elements - fire, water, air and earth - and the role they play in the evolution of cooking. "Fire" focuses on meat, spending time with Aboriginal hunters in Western Australia, a barbecue pit boss in North Carolina and a free range pig farmer.

Pollan allows the subjects to speak for themselves. He is a charmingly pretentious and slightly awkward presence, and the episodes meander, so by the time he gets to the point it just seems like common sense.

Like everyone's favourite teacher, he also detours into personal anecdotes - the farmer we meet stirs a childhood memory of a pet pig, which he ended up having to give away to folk singer James Taylor (with traumatic results). It's only marginally relevant, but it's this kind of detail that makes Cooked feel more like a meditation than a manifesto.

If Michael Pollan advocates a back-to-basics approach to food, then Netflix's other marquee cooking show is at the very opposite end of the spectrum.

Chef's Table is a series of portraits of the Michelin-starred enigmas behind some of the world's flashest restaurants.

In the first one we meet Massimo Bottura, head chef at Osteria Francescana, which features high on most "best restaurants in the world" lists.

He makes grand proclamations like "the most important ingredient ... is memory". His practice is heavily influenced by modern art - he deconstructs traditional Italian cuisine with things like foams and mousses and reductions. For a long time the locals in Modena, Italy, hated his guts for it.

So cooking is what separates us from the apes, but also, it's art. Then there's me, getting mad at Nadia Lim every night, wishing I could just have toast for dinner.

Between Chef's Table and Cooked, that suddenly seems like the stupidest idea in the world. By the power of Michael Pollan, I'm going to give cooking another chance.