How Master of None Uses Food to Explore Authenticity

Food Features Master of None
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How <i>Master of None</i> Uses Food to Explore Authenticity

At the end of Master of None’s first season, Dev (Aziz Ansari) is at a low point: his long-time girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells) has just announced that in addition to breaking up with him, she’s packing her things and moving to Tokyo. Inspired by her bold “no-regrets” approach to life, Dev impulsively embarks on his own journey to Italy to eat and make pasta, fulfilling the dream of many a foodie—traveling to a foreign country to experience their cuisine first-hand. But his search for authenticity goes deeper than just the food: he’s searching for real human connections as well. And for Dev, and Master of None’s Season Two as a whole, food and human connection go hand-in-hand.

The second season begins with Dev in a small Italian town called Modena, working at a pasta shop owned by an Italian grandmother—and really, what could be more authentic than learning how to make tortellini in brodo from an Italian grandma? In fact, the show’s commitment to veracity is so integral to the season that Dev’s Modena adventures actually mirror Ansari’s own real-life experience there, including working at the same pasta shop, actually getting stuck in an alley with Eric Wareheim (who plays Arnold), and giving his real-life Italian acquaintances on-screen cameos.

Dev’s search for realness is all the more vital in the wake of his breakup—he’s lonely, and missing the deep emotional intimacy he once had. His love for food serendipitously leads him to meet Sara (Clare-Hope Ashitey) at a renowned restaurant, instantly bonding over their meal. And, of course, working at the pasta shop he meets Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), who becomes one of Dev’s closest friends in Italy.

When Dev returns to New York, he is desperate to recreate the authenticity he found in Modena. He initially lands a steady gig hosting the fictional show, Clash of the Cupcakes, and while it does combine his acting skills with the food industry, Dev isn’t satisfied with its performative nature. As the host, he has no real interactions with the baking contestants, and feels that the venture is ultimately a soulless and commercial engine. His camaraderie with Chef Jeff (an Anthony Bourdain-type character played by Bobby Cannavale) prompts him to pitch the show BFF: Best Food Friends, in which he and Jeff would travel the world, eat food, and meet people, just as Dev did in Modena. Part of what makes BFF unique is the fact that it wouldn’t be just another white guy sampling “exotic” cuisine. Dev’s ethnicity lends the show legitimacy, steering its purpose towards celebrating how food brings people together, not on what makes people different. When it’s revealed that Jeff has a history of sexual harassment, Dev is reminded that in show business, authenticity may always be an elusive idea.

Aside from his professional life, Dev also craves intimacy in the romantic sense, but he spends the episode “First Date” mostly coming up empty in terms of compatible dining partners. When Francesca shows up to visit later on, he finally realizes she is truly his best food friend, and he wants nothing more than to wait for an hour to share tapas with her. You have to wonder if Dev’s relationship with Rachel was doomed from the start when she revealed she was vegetarian and they couldn’t do “splitsies” when eating out. Of course, whether Dev and Francesca’s relationship is truly authentic or simply a fantasy is a question that will have to be answered in the next season.

Food doesn’t just connect Dev to other people—it’s used as a way that Dev and other characters create their own personal identity in a life-long journey to find their authentic selves. In “Religion,” it’s pork that serves as the vehicle for Dev to define who he is in relation to both his parents and his culture. We’re also treated to Denise’s (Lena Waithe) coming-out story in the phenomenal episode, “Thanksgiving.” Holidays are all about traditions, and it’s over the course of several Thanksgiving meals that we see Denise and her mother’s evolving relationship, the dinner table acting as a bridge between generational gaps. The people change, but the food stays the same, and the connection they all share runs deep.

The word “authenticity” has become so ubiquitous in food culture these days that it’s almost lost all meaning. What do we really mean when we say we want authentic food? Is it purity of ingredients? Is it tied to geographic location? Master of None posits that authenticity truly resides in the people behind the meal—the grandmother who hand-makes pasta, the family who disputes over pork and the mother and daughter joining hands over turkey and mashed potatoes.

Elena Zhang is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her writing can be found in HelloGiggles, Bustle, The Mary Sue and PopMatters, among other publications.