Admitting to how much one doesn’t know, in an era bent on proving our incompetence, is humbling enough for most of us. But it seems especially difficult for celebrities. Dispatches from Hollywood have often tended towards the smugness of certitude since COVID’s earliest days in America: recall the infuriating “Imagine” video, in which Gal Gadot and her Oscar-party compatriots smiled down from Olympus at us. In an era in which the hinges seem to be coming off reality, owning up to not being sure of how to respond isn’t just the more charming and relatable option: It’s the only appropriate one.
Which makes “Selena + Chef,” a new HBO Max series, the second of its type in this period, seem like a proportional, frank, and real response to the moment, as well as the second to be truly about living in 2020 without addressing the terrors of the present head-on. There are significant similarities here to Food Network’s excellent “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” which follows the comedian as she studies under her husband in isolation, and ends up providing a sort of portrait of a marriage. Here, the celebrity-profile aspect is intact, as the singer and actress Selena Gomez comes to learn to prepare various dishes with the help of a different pro chef, teleconferenced in for the occasion, each episode. What’s different: Schumer, on her show, is able to lean on her rapport with her spouse (conveniently enough, a professional chef) to infuse her introduction to cooking with an air of confidence. And having spent years drawing upon her life in her art, Schumer is also comfortable revealing her gaps in kitchen knowledge. Gomez has a harder time owning up to her uncertainty in the kitchen, and does so to an audience that won’t let her get by on charm.
That’s not to say the chefs are unkind to Gomez. In fact, her celebrity is a kind of third character on the show (or a seventh character, if you count Gomez’s grandparents and two roommates, all of whom float through the proceedings): Gomez is treated with a sort of careful gentleness by her tutors, who urge her on through the preparation of genuinely complicated dishes with tones of soft, loving ministration. These are chefs who’ve been through the fire of restaurant kitchens and bring as little of that competition as they can to their engagement with their new charge. It’s a brief that fits some chefs more comfortably than others: Gomez’s first episode, in which she admits to not having used her kitchen yet before just bringing an omelette over the finish line and undercooking soufflés, sees her mentor coaching her, by the end, in slightly more clipped tones than those with which he’d begun.
The star evinces a spirit of curiosity about these chefs’ lives, though the subject tends to return to Selena. It’s hard to blame her — her name comes first in the title for a reason, and, what’s more, she’s the one forced out of her comfort zone. What Gomez gives us of herself tends to prompt more questions than silence might: Informed that her omelette-and-soufflé coach decided to be a chef at 14, she declares, “That’s so crazy. When I was 14 I started my TV show, actually.” His reply that she must have known what she wanted to do at a young age, too, prompts Gomez’s embarrassed laughter. She tends to bloom when discussing what lies beyond her career: Discussing one chef’s pet charity — each episode ends with a brief but not blithe call-out of this sort — Gomez tells the camera that she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s a disclosure Gomez has made before, and one she makes here with such plainness that her evident comfort, far more so than in discussing matters of her career, becomes the story.
Gomez has not consistently been a star who’s seemed this easy on the grandest of the stages she’s occupied — more a hard worker than a virtuoso, she sings live with, at times, visible nerves, and has criticized journalists who’ve profiled her. Here, Gomez expresses herself through a kind of repudiation of her fame, both by referencing her career only glancingly and shyly and even by her post-grad-with-an-expense-account decor, flashy in an Anthropologie Home way rather than an Architectural Digest one. Her knives are a dreamy fairyland iridescent, with teal handles — the sort of kitchen tools an interior designer would never pick out, and ones that suit Gomez’s clean-lined, brick-walled kitchen only in the sense that they are hers.
It’s these details that grab the eye — Gomez’s colorful “Eat Local” dishrag, graciously unstained; her grandfather’s sharp way with a critique and her unfamous friends’ goofy, next-to-normal way of palling around with their megastar roommate; the fact that Gomez accidentally turns on her special “bread oven,” not the regular one, when setting out to make matcha-banana chocolate chip cookies — that grip the viewer. What have these months been if not an exercise in demonstrating just how interesting someone else’s home can be for a viewer starved for novel detail? They also help make “Selena + Chef” a show about what we’re living through. Not merely is Gomez forcing herself through a challenging mission, learning to cook, she’s also doing so while learning to show us aspects of herself she’d resisted giving up thus far. For anyone who’s found layers of self-protection stripped away during the COVID era, it’s the mere fact of this, more than any one disclosure, that seems like a powerful statement by a uniquely guarded star. And it’s that act — marshalling her power as a public figure by being willing to come down to our level — which may be the skill, learned in isolation and practiced over weeks, that ends up serving her more than cooking for one ever could.