Hail to the Chefs

Cooking as a theme for animation is nothing new, but the phenomenon seems to be on the rise this year. New animated productions are increasingly featuring fictional chefs; established animated chefs are being taken in new directions; and classic animated characters of all kinds are being turned into guides to cooking and baking in spin-off productions, promotions, products, and experiences:

  • Disney debuted the Cooking with Pixar YouTube channel in April, featuring tutorials that star Pixar characters ranging from Bao and Forky to Woody and, of course, Rémy from Ratatouille. Each video is built around a scratch recipe appropriate for families to make together. The recipes are closely tied to the film in which each character appears. Forky’s episode centers around pepperoni pizza with bell pepper rings, à la Toy Story 4’s Pizza Planet, and the episode starring Bao, from the 2018 Pixar short of the same name, focuses on Chinese dumplings (bao), which is appropriate as the character is a dumpling come to life.
  • The stop-motion-animated character The Tiny Chef, known for his short Instagram videos and a wide array of content on YouTube, is being featured in a new picture book from Penguin Random House imprint Razorbill. The book is set for a September release and is aimed at “cheffers” aged 4-8. It is about a lost cookbook needed to make a vegetable stew and includes a recipe created by the executive chef of L.A. vegan restaurant Little Pine. The Tiny Chef Show, which has more than 364,000 followers, debuted in 2018. It stars a six-inch-high, round, green plush celebrity chef who babbles mostly incomprehensibly as he cooks and experiences humorous moments of daily life. Imagine Kids+Family recently took an equity stake in the property, created by Rachel Larsen, Ozlem Akturk, and Adam Reid, and Bodega Animation signed on to help create additional content. Plans include short-form entertainment, a TV series, and consumer products including gaming, in-school materials, live events, and other opportunities. A second book is in the works for next year.
  • Shane the Chef, a character from the British animated series of the same name, paired with Too Good To Go, an anti-food waste app. Shane is promoting the launch of a children’s recipe competition, the #EasyRecipeasy Children’s Challenge, this summer. Children 12 and under are charged with creating recipe cards for a dish that features often-wasted foods such as milk, eggs, potatoes, bread, and bananas, with the contest open through the summer. Winners receive a food waste-themed cooking kit containing a Shane recipe book, an apron, and utensils. Each of the five most-wasted foods mentioned are matched with an episode of Shane the Chef, a series that promotes healthy eating, to help inspire creativity. Shane is from HoHo Entertainment and airs on Channel 5’s Milkshake preschool block.
  • Yeti Farm is producing a digital preschool series, Munchy Munchy, with chef Pierre Lamielle of Chopped Canada fame. The series is based on his books The Munchy Munchy Cookbook for Kids, Alice Eats: A Wonderland Cookbook, and Kitchen Scraps: A Humorous Illustrated Cookbook. The series of 12 one-minute episodes, each highlighting an interesting or quirky attribute of food and featuring an original song, brings illustrated characters called the Munchy Munchy Bunch from the pages of Lamielle’s books to the screen.
  • The adult-themed Netflix animated series Tuca & Bertie takes a different approach from the others listed here. It is about two female friends, a song thrush and a toucan, in their 30s, one of whom is employed in a bakery. The show includes a perspective on the workings of the restaurant industry and particularly the #MeToo movement in that industry. It was created by Lisa Hanawalt, known for her work on BoJack Horseman.
  • Steamroller Studios launched a short animated film called Spice Frontier, designed as a test for a potential animated series. The plot involves humans living among dozens of alien species after the Earth is destroyed, with a chef and his cyborg partner at the center of the action as they search the galaxy for Earth spices. The short was created by Jalil Sadool and Adam Meyer.

The marriage of animation and cooking is not new. The above-mentioned Ratatouille celebrates its 13th anniversary in 2020 and its characters are featured in marketing materials, such as signage, for the Taste of Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, set to launch this week as Epcot reopens. The characters also have a new ride at the park, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, located in the new France Pavilion. And well before Rémy, The Swedish Chef debuted as one of Jim Henson’s Muppets in 1975. The character remains beloved and continues to be spotted on Muppets licensed merchandise such as t-shirts.

That said, cooking themes tied to animation seem to be having a moment in the current landscape. This is part of a broader movement to support kids’ love of cooking through entertainment, products, and live events. Over the last several years, more cooking competition shows have attracted families as viewers, with some even featuring kids (e.g., Masterchef Junior). Kids’ cooking kits and cooking sets have been on the rise in the food, toy, and housewares categories. And kids’ and family cookbooks—often featuring licensed characters as guides—have been on the rise as well. The pandemic has helped further this trend, with cooking-themed animation being a case in point, as more families are not only co-watching entertainment but also creating meals together during the lockdown.

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