The Cook of Castamar might be an episode or two too long, but it’s a charming, complex period romance that has just the right recipe for success.
This review of The Cook of Castamar is spoiler-free.
Adapted from Spanish author Fernando J. Múñez’s same-titled 2019 novel, The Cook of Castamar is advertised as an ill-advised romance between an agoraphobic cook and a widowed nobleman. And it is that, to be honest, but it’s also a lot more besides, the kind of slow-burn period drama that takes a while to get its hooks in but eventually finds a sweet spot for its complex web of interlocking characters and subplots. The literary source material paints a damning portrait of early 18th-century Madrid and its rigidly class-stratified society, but it also finds warmth and humanity in the connections that develop between various different personalities in the luxurious duchy of Castamar.
Clara Belmonte (Michelle Jenner) has fallen from grace, you see, and is plying her trade as a cook of obviously exceptional talent in the kitchens of Castamar, initially given a hard time by the servants’ overseers, Melquíades Elquiza (Òscar Rabadán) and Úrsula Berenguer (Mónica López), and even several of the other servants. Through her culinary talents and her charm, though, she’s able to become well-liked — perhaps slightly too well-liked by Diego de Castamar (Roberto Enríquez), a sullen nobleman who lost his wife in an accident a decade prior. Given their differences in class, a relationship between these two is not exactly recommended for the good of the duchy, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and so too does Netflix, who need the soapy melodrama that ensues to lure in more and more eyeballs.
And while there is a generous helping of melodrama here, it’s of a distinguished variety. Everywhere you turn there are characters and storylines to care about: Diego is betrothed to Amelia Castro (María Hervás), a beautiful but snooty woman who isn’t keen on the idea of being ousted by a cook, and whose own relationships and backstory are complicated enough. Diego is often flanked by his mother, Mrs. Mercedes (Fiorella Faltoyano), and brother, Gabriel (Jean Cruz), a free Black man with his own eyes on the wrong woman. But it isn’t all romance. There’s political scheming aplenty and even murder, with Marina Gatell’s clever Sol and the Marquis Enrique de Arcona providing heaps of moral ambiguity and antagonism to various parties.
Sex, blood, scheming — The Cook of Castamar has it all and then some, and it’s going to delight a sizeable portion of viewers who’re in the market for such things. But it’s in the quality of its script and performances that it really shines, helping to elevate material that might be seen as tawdry and give it both a touch of class and earnest sentiment. That, and the fact it, rather uncommonly for a Netflix original, actually ends — the finale provides an excellent payoff and is a real return of the investment required to get through 12 meaty episodes. That might be one or two too many, but it’s worth the effort.