I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hunch that this TV show was cooked up (boom boom) to promote Korean food to the rest of the world. Let’s Eat (tvN 2013-2014) hits all the beats of a typical K-drama, but with cheesily shoehorned-in glamour shots of food and descriptions thereof. It’s a little like Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman but less wacky. And it actually made me want to eat most of the foods depicted.
Our hero, happily divorced paralegal Lee Soo-kyung (played by Lee Soo-kyung), is very comfortable with living alone. Her only frustration is that she loves to eat at restaurants, but dining out in her neighbourhood of Seoul is not designed for groups of one. (Most restaurants serve big sharing platters designed for 3 or 4 people.) Her best friend Kyung-mi (Jung Soo-young) is busy with her young children and Soo-kyung doesn’t really like her colleagues at the small law firm.
However, she discovers that both her next-door neighbours are also in need of company at mealtimes. Handsome but mysterious Goo Dae-young (Yoon Doo-joon, or Doojoon, a Hallyu star who has sung with Beast and Highlight) is a gourmand with a habit of lecturing his companions on the proper way to eat certain items. He works in insurance and has a tendency to put off new acquaintances by constantly trying to sell them a policy. It says a lot for Yoon that he manages to make this character charming.
Young and flirtatious Yoon Jin-yi (Yoon So-hee) comes from a rich family, but suddenly has to support herself through design school. She is clueless about a lot of things, but her relentless positivity makes friends of everyone she meets.
There are multiple love triangles and a weak storyline about women being attacked late at night, but the food is the real subject matter here. Each episode opens with a glamour shot of a particular Korean dish, which will later be eaten by some of the characters. The meals are lingered over, showing how they are eaten in painstaking detail. This is accompanied by Soo-kyung and/or Dae-young giving a mini lecture about the food, usually in horrified response to one of their companions expressing a lack of interest in the dish.
I really like the set-up for Soo-kyung and that she remains a strong-willed, independent character throughout the series. However, she doesn’t have any chemistry with either of the men the drama lines up as potential partners, which begins to grate when that becomes the bulk of the story.
It must also be said that most of the secondary characters are exaggerated figures of fun. Soo-kyung’s colleagues are particularly bad in this respect. Oh Do-yeon is a lawyer, but all her storylines are about her chasing men who aren’t interested in her, or her making comments that suggest she is deluded about her own appearance because the drama is working hard to depict her as ugly. It’s pretty offensive.
Overall, though, I did enjoy this series enough to check out the sequel Let’s Eat 2 (tvN 2015), which only shares one lead actor with the original: Yoon as Dae-young. This was largely better written and acted, though the contrivance to showcase food was much weaker.
In Let’s Eat 2 Dae-young has moved back to his childhood home of Sejong City. He finds himself living next door to Baek Soo-ji (Seo Hyun-jin), a struggling writer. They were at school together and she tells Dae-young that he owes her for something in their past. To right this wrong, she suggests Dae-young help her win the heart of Lee Sang-woo (Kwon Yul). It’s a tough task because, despite having worked together on a local project for several months, Sang-woo cannot remember Soo-ji’s name and has zero interest in her.
Soo-ji is a less feminist figure than series 1’s Soo-kyung, but she is also more rounded and interesting. And this show does a good job of showing how awkward it can be when there is a big wealth disparity between people who are dating. Even if the richer person is basically kind and decent, and certainly never uses their wealth for evil, the difference in lifestyle is really hard to bridge. The poorer person repeatedly ends up overspending so as not to reveal how poor they are.
This series concentrates on regional specialities and home cooking. The latter is done well enough, via the characters getting to know each other and sharing meals. The former is far more awkward than in series 1. Soo-ji’s project with Sang-woo is producing a leaflet for foreign visitors about food in Sejong and the surrounding region. It’s so on the nose it’s laughable. But then nothing in this show is subtle.
The non-romantic subplots are more interesting and nuanced than in series 1, though not necessarily more believable. Towards the end they get so complex that both food and romance have to be put on hold for a few episodes, which is an awkward tone shift.
There is also a more recent sequel, Let’s Eat 3 (2018), again starring Yoon as Dae-young, but that isn’t available on Netflix or Viki in the UK.