Baking Shows Are Secretly Reality TV for Frustrated Writers

"Gourmet Makes" taught me to embrace the challenges of the creative process

A row of frosted cupcakes on a table against a pastel blue wall
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

A writer’s frustrations exist in private. The panic of a blank page; the fear of an editor’s note; the despair of a structural misstep. It’s possible to vocalize these terrors, sharing them in the hopes that the writer will feel less alone. But their specificity exists only in the author’s head, echoing,burrowing endlessly down. 

This is one of the reasons why writing is so hard to depict on screen. To make it visible is already to blunt its mystery. Films and TV constantly attempt to show us the process of writing, often through fabulation—think of the glittering world of newspaper columns in Sex and the City or the exaggerated horrors of writer’s block in The Shining—but the true mundanity of a writer’s frustrations are much too opaque to make for good on-screen drama. If only writing were more like singing. Or fashion design. Or cooking. Then we’d have a million reality TV competitions that might, admittedly, dumb down what it is that we do, but would also give us a chance to see the struggles of our progress reflected in vivid, consumable segments––enough to create the kind of kinship many of us long for when we write in isolation. 

In the absence of such entertainment, I’ve found myself gravitating more and more to baking shows, where I’ve unexpectedly discovered a genre that shines a light on those very writerly frustrations I longed to see dissected on screen. Watching things like Nailed It! and The Great British Bake-Off—not to mention the likes of Martha Bakes, Milk Street, and America’s Test Kitchen—has become a comforting distraction; one that’s as much about improving my own baking skills as it is embracing the messiness that come from wanting (and oftentimes failing) to make something perfect. Currently, no show does that better than Bon Appétit’s Gourmet Makes.

As much as I watch Gourmet Makes for the recipes and foibles, I’ve ended up enjoying it as an unintentional form of writing self-help. 

The popular YouTube series follows pastry chef Claire Saffitz as, every episode, she tries to recreate a gourmet version of a beloved supermarket-ready snack food. During its run, Gourmet Makes has pushed Claire to make everything from Twinkies and Skittles to ramen noodles and Doritos. Claire is the kind of chef that makes you feel at home in her kitchen: she brings an entire career’s worth of pastry knowledge to the table, but it is her curiosity and her resourcefulness that make her a perfect host for a show built on impossible requests. Her favorite part of any given episode is the moment she gets to list the lengthy, obscure ingredient list of whatever snack she’s trying to replicate—lists that include things like “mono and diglycerides,” “lecithin,” and “sulfur dioxide.” 

On the surface, the show is about the sheer difficulty of trying to recreate an industrial-made foodstuff by human labor alone. Did you know, for example, that Pop Rocks are made by trapping CO₂ at high pressure in its hard-rock sugar base? Or that Kit Kats are not just made of layers of wafers but include crushed wafers within those layers? Many of the foods Claire attempts to remake so obviously require mass-manufacturing tools and ingredients that her attempts are all but designed to fail. The writer in me is particularly tickled by such a proposition. Claire’s goal is to replicate an ideal she knows she can only ever approximate. In this pursuit she’s no different than many of us who write for a living, where every sentence can feel like an approximation of the ideal we aspire to but must understand we’ll never accomplish. This impossible toil, to me, is what Gourmet Makes is truly about.

Writing, like baking, is beholden to the vicissitudes of everyday life. One of the implicit rules that governs Gourmet Bakes is that Claire (possibly due to budgetary as well as scheduling concerns) will not spend more than four days trying to crack snack food’s secrets: how, for example,  Starbursts get that gooey yet firm consistency, or how those beloved Peeps get their signature shape. These constraints are part of what make the show so endlessly watchable. Every episode is an obstacle course wrapped up in a quippy, reverse-engineered recipe How To video. As Claire tries to craft a Kit Kat, for example, the video guides us through her process: “Test 1: Martha Stewart’s Stroopwafel recipe,” a title card informs us as she sets out to crack the wafer inside the chocolate bar. Two minutes later, we’re watching Claire go through Test 4 after a talk with her colleague Brad Leone (“Ignore Brad – Crush sugar cookie – Combine with Rice Krispies, bake”) as a montage shows her attempts to course-correct the shortcomings of Stewart’s initial wafer. In essence, you’re watching (almost) in real time just how many attempts it takes to pursue, but never quite attain, perfection. 

In its built-in restrictions, Claire’s baking process mirrors what writing can feel like, with deadlines, social calendars, routines, unforeseen events, and financial constraints curbing how much time you can afford to spend on any given project. It’s a show that asks us to relish the process more than the final result. Even with all the roadblocks that the show depicts, its playful core offers a crucial reminder: no matter the anxieties that baking—or writing—may elicit, there’s value in the act of creation, no matter how improbable or impractical it may seem.

Moreover, Gourmet Makes is a powerful example of the way in which things are rarely completed but merely submitted: “How many of these do I need finished, you think, to be like ‘I did it!’?” Claire  asks as she painstakingly covers a homemade Sno Ball in shredded coconut. As much of a perfectionist as Claire is, she’s also not one to create unreal expectations beyond the ones the show already sets out. There’s a groundedness, a maturity, to seeing a professional draw lines in the sand that put her own sanity and wellbeing above the work. As much as I watch Gourmet Makes for the recipes and the foibles that come along with them, I’ve ended up enjoying it as an unintentional form of writing self-help. 

No matter the anxieties that baking—or writing—may elicit, there’s value in the act of creation, no matter how improbable or impractical it may seem.

For that reason, seeing Claire fail—at tempering chocolate, say—is cathartic. Not because there’s any pleasure in seeing the failure, but because those mishaps are always immediately followed by small triumphs. It’s in those moments when I find myself wholly enraptured by what Gourmet Makes has become. This is a show whose first episode, clocking in at just 11 and a half minutes (more recent episodes were forty minutes each) was merely informational. Heavily edited to include just the right amount of entertaining banter, the episode was focused on the end-product: the recipe for a Gourmet Twinkie. Over the last two years, though, the episodes have leaned more forcefully on depicting Claire’s struggle, showing us the inherent value—and joy, even—of the process of making, as the title suggests. Long takes of her looking despondently at her misshapen experiments have come to dominate more recent episodes, making each one a mini-lesson in humility and resilience—two things I often have to remind myself are central to my life as a writer. 

But if Gourmet Makes has become a paean to the frustrations of aiming for perfection, it is also an example of the value of a strong peer support group. Claire may be the exasperated one in front of the camera, but it is the test kitchen team around her who constantly cheer her on, helping her muster the energy to finish what she started. Her colleagues pitch in with fashioning contraptions to perfect her Twizzlers’ signature shape, or step up whenever she needs an extra pair of taste buds to make sure the Doritos cheese dust has the right balance of flavors. But more than that, the camera-ready members of the kitchen function, in any given episode, as encouraging critics that push Claire to do better. Even if that means scrapping a day’s worth of work.

In those moments, when an unexpected compliment reminds her that she’s on the right path, or someone’s suggestion forces her to reevaluate her approach, you can see Claire realize how important it is to have colleagues who will motivate and challenge you in equal measure. Which is also part of what makes her small tantrums all the more relatable. “I want you to know,” she says during a homemade Kit Kat tasting before bursting into near maniacal, exhausted laughter, “that I can take zero criticism right now.” Whenever I’ve spent hours (or days! or weeks!) on a piece and then sent it to an editor, I’m always terrified. Not because I think that what I’ve written is perfect but because I know, deep down, that their feedback will make the writing stronger, requiring more effort at a time when I feel depleted of any desire to go on. 

My penchant for watching Gourmet Makes began as a procrastinating tool, a way to pass the time in between stretches of staring at a blank page. What it’s become instead is a therapeutic tool. I’m comforted by Claire’s sisyphean misadventures in the kitchen. More than simply depicting  the same anxieties I struggle with as a writer (is this good enough? Can I just be done already? Why did I attempt this in the first place?), they offer strategies that temper those same feelings (setting up healthy restrictions, knowing when to stop, finding a strong support group). Perhaps that sounds too pat. But seeing such a message delivered not as a working mantra but as a tangible part of someone’s process shows me what I’ve missed in other  attempts to render writing: the sheer banality of one’s frustrations, punctuated with brief spurts of exhilaration that follow when a job is done. A celebration of the necessary unruliness of one’s process, Gourmet Makes is proof that writerly epiphanies can come from the unlikeliest of places––even from frazzled pastry chefs in tricked-out kitchens trying to perfect the nougat on a homemade Snickers bar.

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