Ever since Julia Child first braised boeuf bourguignonne for public-TV audiences in 1963, American cooking shows have rooted their instruction in an illusion of ease. Of course you can cook. Anyone can cook! All you do is follow the steps. The hosts — famous chefs, chefs who might be famous, famous non-chefs like Selena Gomez — prepare aspirational meals with aspirationally little effort, using an aspirational number of clean bowls. The promise of food television is that you can become like them. We are all in this together, cooking shows promise. We are all just one tutorial away from living in a crisp East Hampton villa with our doting husband Jeffrey.
But now, there is Cooking With Paris. The show, which premieres on Netflix this week, is about cooking with Paris Hilton. On the surface, it looks like standard-issue Netflix food filler from the service that has already brought us Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Chef Show, and Cooked. But it is so much stranger. Cooking With Paris rattles the very foundations of cooking television.
This development is not apparent in the premise, which is about what you’d expect. “I love cooking, but I’m not a trained chef,” muses Hilton at the start of each episode, explaining that she has found some new recipes to expand her culinary repertoire and is now inviting friends over to test them out. In the premiere, Hilton briefly and vaguely suggests that this project has to do with how she is getting married and wants to be a mom soon, which I found exciting. It could be like an updated version of that 1908 classic The Bride’s Cook Book, but on Netflix and starring Paris Hilton!
Alas, it is not that. Instead, the plot of the first episode is that Hilton’s ex-employee Kim Kardashian West comes over and the two make French toast with glitter on it and a frittata using a recipe that Hilton says she found on the internet. “No one has partied as hard as you and looks the way you do,” Kardashian West tells Hilton, who smiles. “I’m an alien,” she tells her.
As the series wears on, it is never exactly clear what Hilton knows or does not know about cooking. She has no trouble caramelizing the tops of marshmallows with a tiny butane torch, but moments later, she seems alarmed by the fundamental mechanics of toast. (“Why does this keep turning brown?”) When, in the third episode, comedian Nikki Glaser drops by to make vegan burgers and fries, Hilton is unable to identify a whisk but seems remarkably comfortable with a deep fryer.
What is this show? I kept thinking, marching through the four available episodes, increasingly agitated for reasons I could not explain. And why?
The most cynical reading is that Hilton, who is clearly sensitive to branding opportunities, posted a semi-satirical video of herself making her “famous lasagna” in January 2020, 5 million people watched it, and Netflix bought it. This may be the correct reading, but it is not very satisfying; they could have made something else, and instead they made this.
To understand what Cooking With Paris is, it helps to start with what it is not: It is not informative. It is neither practical nor culinarily interesting. There are no useful tips or tricks or fun cultural facts, the kind of trivia you might pull out, years later, if you were ever at a party and someone asked, “So what’s the deal with Himalayan salt?”
It is not funny, although the twist is that it is also not serious. It feels as though it should be satire, except it doesn’t satirize anything specific. The joke is that Paris Hilton is Paris Hilton — classic — only now she is cooking, sort of, in a giant kitchen she appears to have never entered previously, surrounded by assistants, decked out in cocktail dresses and fingerless gloves. It is definitely self-aware. It is maybe sometimes amusing? It feels like a spiritual successor to The Simple Life, in which Hilton landed in Middle America and did normal Middle American things like shopping for groceries or working at a drive-through. But while Hilton allowed herself to be the butt of the joke in that series — it’s still funny to watch an overconfident socialite ask “What is Walmart?” — there’s no clear punch line when Hilton simply can’t achieve the effortless charade of a typical cooking show, largely because she is not trying.
Hilton enjoys cooking. We know because she tells us at the top of every episode. But she approaches the task with antiseptic reserve. She very rarely tastes what she is making and often protects herself with rubber gloves. “I can’t even deal,” Hilton sighs when she and Demi Lovato mess up the dough for their homemade ravioli, but whatever. She has other, “normal” ravioli waiting in the fridge. You can buy more. “Is the problem with extreme wealth that there are no stakes?” I asked a friend, who agreed that, yes, that might be one of them.
Hilton is so confident, she claims, about her own abilities, regularly proclaiming that she is, at all times, “killing it” — or sometimes “sliving,” her trademarked portmanteau of “killing it” and “slaying” — unencumbered by knowledge or details. And the thing is that her food mostly comes out okay! Perhaps the aspirational part, I thought, is how not stressed out she is about the whole thing? Like how she’s not worried about making mistakes? And when she does, it’s kind of … fine? I offered this reading to several people. None of them seemed convinced, but one did suggest this might be something to work on with a therapist.
The show works best not as entertainment but as a deconstruction of the genre, tearing down the illusions of dump-and-stir TV. “It’s all fake!,” Cooking With Paris whispers in its sexy baby voice. Of course your life will never look like this; the whole thing’s a mirage! Are you famous? Do you have an army of production assistants? Give it up; the deck is stacked. And still, it is so effortful! No task is easy in Hilton’s kitchen despite the assistants and the double dishwasher and the marble countertops and the two pot-filled sinks.
You watch this show and you do not want to be Paris Hilton, or befriend her, or eat her glitter-topped cannoli, or pet her many tiny dogs. Hilton is not a better, shinier version of you. Hilton’s whole thing is that she’s not like you at all. Her life looks nothing like yours, and she doesn’t want it to, and neither do you. Culinary television is not set up for this. Teetering around her palatial kitchen in stilettos, Hilton manages to tear down every TV cooking trope there is, including the main one, which is that cooking, and also living, can be, in some sense, fun.
The overall effect does not appear to have been on purpose, necessarily, but it is undeniable. The resulting show is strangely lonely and slightly sad, a small woman in a large kitchen making stilted small talk with people she is supposed to know. “Do you live in L.A. now?” she asks the rapper Saweetie as they make shrimp tacos. She does. “I love L.A.,” Hilton replies. Sometimes Hilton laughs, but is she really laughing? It is hard to tell.