In October 2020, months after the pandemic devastated the restaurant industry, Dan Levy came up with the idea for “The Big Brunch,” the HBO Max cooking competition centered around his favorite meal of the day. Levy was in bed at the time, and popped in to “write it down from beginning to end”. The next day, he called his managers to tell them this, and when they asked Levy exactly what the offer was, he gave it to them in “great detail”.
As we sat together at a verdant sea-foam banquette, facing the open kitchen where the chefs cook on the bistro-inspired display set—designed by David Correns, of “Hamilton” fame—it was clear that these details were very important to “The Brunch.” big. ”
As is the heart of the show, which fans of Levi’s “Shit Creek” are now familiar with. Levi has friends who are chefs, he said, and feels that gathering around a restaurant table, now more than ever, is important. “Wanting to bring people together through a shared shared experience is something I thought was really beautiful and profound,” he said.
The final two episodes of “The Big Brunch” — Levy’s first self-produced project since “Schitt’s Creek” ended its six-season run in April 2020, and subsequently went on to land a historic Emmys sweep in every major comedy category — HBO Max at HBO Max Thanksgiving day. For the final two episodes, the “Big Brunch” group will go from five semifinalists to three finalists, and then to one winner (no spoilers here), who will receive a cash prize of $300,000.
This reward is greater than that of other cooking competitions for a reason. “I didn’t want to feel like performing,” Levy said. “I really wanted the award to change someone’s life.”
Big Branch executive producer Andrew Fried, the show’s president of producer Boardwalk Pictures, echoed Levy’s sentiments about wanting to change the winner’s life. “If we didn’t make it, it was kind of like, what’s the point?” he said during an interview from the production office.
The good ethos of The Big Brunch’s is solely based on the chefs’ “true and personal stories,” Fried said, which began with a group of 10 people, and it all underscores that “there are no losers in our show,” Fried said, “and even those who are eliminated early.” They were given a “platform to amplify themselves and their brands”.
If the early years of Bravo’s flagship “Top Chef” assembled a talented crew of fine-dining chefs with backgrounds in French cooking, all of whom wanted to open their own restaurants, well — the cast of “The Big Brunch” shows how often they’ve changed. Among the show’s semi-finalists is Jie Chong, a queer woman originally from Toronto who specializes in Cantonese cuisine. Roman Wilcox, a vegan chef from El Paso, Texas, who runs a community restaurant in a food desert; and Daniel Harthausen, who specializes in Korean-Japanese cooking and has a successful pop-up restaurant in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. It’s such a diverse group that the show’s judges—Chef Sahla El Waily and restaurateur Will Guidara—learned from them. For El Waily, who was one of the stars of Bon Appétit’s popular YouTube channel “Test Kitchen” and then helped lead a summer 2020 uprising against the magazine’s tokenization and underpaid BIPOC chefs, the turnaround was a long time coming. “There was a time when everything had to be French in order to count as fancy or technical,” she said. “And it’s nice to see that we’ve gone that far here.”
Willcox’s botanical creations in particular opened her eyes, El-Wailey added: “It’s a lot of things I haven’t had before. I’m just like, ‘Whoa, maybe I could Go vegan! “
“I’ve been introduced to new things,” said Guidara, co-author of four cookbooks and former co-owner of Make It Nice, a restaurant group that includes Eleven Madison Park.. “And there’s this dynamic in the relationship where I feel very comfortable saying, ‘I don’t have a point of reference for this — explain this to me.'” “
Nor does every chef on staff simply want to open their own restaurant. Executive Producer Sarina Roma, also of Boardwalk Pictures, said: “Everyone in the culinary world has a different dream – you might want to write a cookbook, you might want to have a food truck, you might want a cooking show. How can we support these chefs in Obtaining their exact dream?”
During the “The Big Brunch” competition, the judges focused on delivering meaningful critiques, even in the rare moments when the chef is out of breath: No Simon Quells here. “The whole premise of this is that they’re going to go off and do something bigger,” Guidara said. “Whether they win this or not, this is a platform that should support their biggest dreams. And that’s just — that’s great.”
“Everyone is just trying to do the best they can,” Al-Waili said. “And it’s been really fun to see how much they’ve grown since the first episode.” (During my scheduled visit in late March, he tasted everything prepared for the holiday-themed Episode VII Nov. 24, which included lobster mashed potatoes and a vegan soy roll, among other finds. And I can happily attest to the chefs’ quality food.)
Levi is currently in Europe filming “Good Grief,” his first feature film for Netflix, which he also starred in and wrote. But on the set of “The Big Brunch,” he’s reminded of “Schitt’s Creek,” his co-creation with his father Eugene that catapulted him to stardom.
He said, “Schit Creek was about texture and feel and detail, making sure that not only were the scenes we write funny, that the actors were doing the most – but that the real world we’re writing about was thoughtful, fun and ambitious in a way that puts people at ease.”
One of the things I noticed while watching the cook in action was that the chefs were helping each other out, even though they were competitors. “Five people left, and if you’re still in it, you can taste it, right? As you can actually see yourself winning, you can actually see yourself winning,” said Guidara, quipped. “And at the end of everyone’s time, they all help each other!”
“It just feels weird that the characters playing in the sandbox we’ve created capture the spirit of the show since the first day we developed it,” said Freed. “And I don’t think we could have forced that.”
That spirit is exactly what Levi wanted from “The Big Brunch.” “Nothing should be negative, everything should be supportive,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to feel bad, even if they end up going home. They need to know that even just being here was a win in itself.”
Things have changed since March at HBO Max, with the pain of post-merger cost-cutting overshadowing Warner Bros. discovery. But on the set of “The Big Brunch,” the Principles seemed excited about the prospect of this being a franchise.
“Oh yes!” Roma responded when asked if Boardwalk would want to do a second season. “Sure,” Fred said in agreement. “We’ve taken something here that sticks with a lot of the traditions of these shows that we love—and deviates from them completely to create something unique and unique.”
Levi’s vote is, of course, the most important. And yes, he wants to do more, thank you. “I never thought I’d go back to unscripted television unless it meant something,” he said. “I had no idea how special this whole thing was.”
It’s the teamwork he loves most of all — with fellow judges, with the production, and most of all, between the contestants.
“It’s a really emotionally affirming experience to watch camaraderie like that,” Levy said. “Because I’m so used to people just tearing each other apart.”