Art rarely changes lives the way we wish it would. Galleries leave us broken-backed and feeling thick; that seminal Eastern European novel you thought would induce a thousand epiphanies has just sat in the bottom of your rucksack for months, the bookmark long since replaced by half a Twix wrapper; the last time you ventured into a cinema you stumbled out into the dying light of the afternoon wondering why you’d just spent the best part of twenty quid to watch John Wick 2.
After a while, struck by the slow-dawning realisation that no one cares if you gallantly sat through a play at the Old Vic a few months back, you stop trying.
You fuck the concert hall off and slide straight into bed, desperate for anything that’ll lull you into a comfortable numbness. After a half-dozen false starts, you find comfort in the arms of a stranger. He’s wizened and wise looking; a grey-haired, blue-eyed grandfather wrapped up in a permatan and a canary yellow shirt.
He whispers to you in a sweet Southern burr. “Butch is the name,” he says. “Butch Benavides. Would you care to try my famous chicken-fried loaded baked potato with butter, bacon, and cheese?”
Alongside Jim Stacy and Abel Gonzalez, Butch Benavides is a judge on Deep Fried Masters, the undisputed jewel in Netflix’s cookery crown. An unabashed testament to the pleasures of unbridled gluttony, this sopping-wet greasefest might be one of the most perversely honest pieces of television broadcast since Gillian McKeith threw her rubber gloves in the bin for good.
We love cookery shows because cookery shows let us live out of the ultimate fantasy—the fantasy that we are responsible adults who could (if we so chose) knock up a simple Hairy Bikers inspired slow roasted leg of lamb with braised fennel and onions, rather than having a pair of cut-price pork pies for dinner. Again.
Somewhere between Ainsley Harriott and Chef’s Table, TV cookery decided to take itself very seriously. Overnight every dish became a “journey,” every ingredient was a “challenge,” and every bowl of rice pudding was a “representation” of the “heart and soul” of a frustrated middle manager who’d always dreamt of swapping his spreadsheets for a set of chef’s whites.
And if it wasn’t Peter, a 42 year old IT systems analyst from Bracknell crying into his overdone rainbow chard tart, it was Anthony Bourdain, or a bloke trying to be Anthony Bourdain, stomping around far-flung reaches of the globe exhorting you to grab the nearest red-eye to Ho Chi Minh City just for the “outrageously fucken good” black scrawled cowfish.
Because this is cookery TV, the Deep Fried trio are on a journey, too—they’re on the lookout for America’s next artery-clogging state fair spectacular. Theirs is a landscape in which the midway—the dusty strip of parched grass that separates candy floss from corn dogs—rules all, and their search for cardiovascular-creativity is one where batter-consistency really matters.
The joy of the show stems largely from the fact that, for 40 glorious minutes, batter will matter to you, too. A decent Deep Fried Masters binge will leave you sweaty, pallid, and determined to fry the living fuck out of literally everything in your kitchen cupboards. A manky aubergine? Deep fry it. Half a punnet of on-offer stuffed pasta? Deep fry it. Got a handful of loose broad beans knocking around the veg drawer in the fridge? Drop every single one ‘em into the fryer and then douse the lot with cheese from a can. Butch, I can assure you, will be effusive with his praise.
This is formulaic TV at its mind-numbing best; every episode follows the same trajectory. Jim Stacy—a sort of handsome version of Time Team’s Phil Harding—and the boys rock up at another fair, introduce us to a handful of oil-addicts who spend their summers selling deep fried beer to America’s waddling masses, and then battle commences.
Firstly we watch the contestants cook up their signature dish. This, as you’d expect, is always some kind of painfully unhealthy concoction that positively oozes out of your laptop and all over the pizza-stained sheets you’re lying across of a Sunday evening. Deep fried double cheeseburgers, deep fried pizza pies, deep fried pizza pies stuffed between the patties of a deep fried double cheeseburger, that kind of thing. Someone’s deep fried sack of entrails isn’t deemed fair-worthy, they get politely booted off the midway, and we move on to the second round.
More often than not, the second round involves our intrepid fryers being asked to fry something before putting it on a stick. In Deep Fried Masters, the stick is the ultimate vehicle for calorie consumption. Jim, allegedly famous for his corndogs, knows everything there is to know about food on sticks. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not this gives him any kind of spiritual solace as his face is permanently stuck in the kind of dead-eyed grimace usually associated with completing self-assessment tax returns.
Again, for reasons that to the mere observer seem slightly arcane, another unsuccessful fryer is sent back to his food truck in Chesapeake, where he’s damned to an eternity of funnel cake-related self-flagellation.
The final round—like life itself—is oddly anticlimactic. Again, our contestants risk severe burns by dropping frankly unsuitable foodstuffs into vast vats of piping hot cooking oil, carefully chopping their creations at just the right angle to maximise potential ooze, before serving the result to Butch and the boys on paper plates.
Butch and the boys politely nibble at the final batch of near-cremated cardiac arrests. Someone is crowned that week’s deep fried master. And that’s it. There is no narrative progression, no sense of working towards a final ‘showdown’ and state fair supremacy. Nothing that makes the previous 39 minutes “worth it”. Except they are.
Why? Well, the show is more than a sopping wet parade of deeply dangerous fair-friendly snacks that’d send most sensible viewers running for their Nutribullet. It’s more than a saturated reflection of contemporary gluttony and greed. It’s more than the pockmarked bare-face of rancid consumption.
No, what Deep Fried Masters is is a show that doesn’t flinch from the realities of desire. We may tell ourselves and our Instagram followers that we lust after jackfruit and wild rice, but really, don’t we catch ourselves – in deeply dark moments at least – craving the kind of mindless satisfaction that comes with simply indulging in something we know is doing objectively very, very bad things to us?
While neither man nor regular fair-goer can live on lemonade-stuffed deep-fried butter alone, Deep Fried Masters is a tantalising glimpse into a world where pleasure reigns supreme. And that, surely, is preferable to another series of Great British Menu.