To many people, food is a form of art. Any kind of craft that combines skill, visual elements and a helpful sprinkling of humanity into its experience will instantly carry such a label. In cooking’s case, the human aspect comes from consumption - put simply, we need to eat. The better quality the meal is, the better it will be for our well-being. It’s also these starvation-staving appetites of ours that demand the visual aesthetics with it too. It’s always more satisfying to indulge in a glistening, juicy steak or minimalist dots and splodges that make up gourmet dishes than a plain bowl of brussel sprouts. Like all other creative pursuits, the world of cuisine walks a fine line between arrogant pretension and sublime genius, with very little to separate the two the higher up you go on Michelin stars. But one thing that always seems to get overlooked is where the passion to produce such work stems from. Chefs have been celebrities for years - daytime shows, TV cook-offs and the continued ubiquity of Gordon Ramsay have made sure of that - but we rarely get a glimpse of what made them get into such punishing, emotionally strenuous careers in the first place. We know they’re great at whipping up 10-minute delicacies in the mid-morning while a TV presenter swoons over them in giddy glee. And we certainly know they particularly love French cuisine and could use a class or two in anger management. But we never get to see just how they fell in love with the prospect of working 18-hour days at dingy backroom stoves, just to achieve recognition in a world that many still don’t appreciate, or even understand.
Chef’s Table, a Netflix documentary series that’s been running for a good year or so before I even chanced a scroll upon it, has now spent four seasons trying to shed light on the chefs of some of the ‘greatest’ restaurants in the world (at least according to the San Pellegrino Restaurant Guide), to see how one ticks in a world of daily absolute perfection. This write-up only looks at the first season - when it comes to food, sometimes it’s best to start with the appetizer - but its six episodes definitely do lay bare a few interesting life stories that have played a big part in their protagonists adopting such a clearly maddening profession. Just as expected, there are also plenty of moments when the show’s attempts to reveal the pressure and artisan graft of kitchen life end up jumping into fits of ludicrous hyperbole. But if you’re willing to forego a slightly grievous amount of pomposity, you’re likely to find that Chef’s Table largely succeeds at its task of pulling the lid off of some of the world’s most gifted culinary minds. Its best moments undoubtedly come from when the show drops its veil of connoisseur conceit, and when it does, the glimpse then offered is one that is not only aesthetically phenomenal, but innately fascinating as well.
As you might expect from a show that puts its focus on the chief cooks of fine dining, each episode of Chef’s Table carries the same kind of cultivated, high-society air that thrives at the kind of establishments who cater for such discerning tastes. Orchestral music flutters throughout (the opening theme also utilizes Vivaldi’s Winter piece - a piece I’ve only known through watching British commercials for stuffy furniture stores). Wide, illustriously lit camera shots of kitchen staff hard at work pan left to right while the episode’s chef in question talks about life at their given restaurant. And of course, at least ten times an episode, every other segment will eventually cut to an extended, higher-definition slo-mo of one of the restaurant’s signature menu items - which is often a very small morsel of food getting served up on a comically large plate. This is unquestionably food as television art - an opulent, unashamedly proud celebration of the discriminating palate via a soft focus lens. It all looks impossibly, impeccably colourful - curiously similar in hue to nature documentaries like Planet Earth, in fact. But whereas Planet Earth’s penchant for visual extravagance acts as a platform to emphasize the full beauty of the natural world, there’s a sense of overdoing in Chef’s Table’s stylistic method that hints at a more cunning motive for its quality. All these violin strings and lavish shots of four-dollar-sign blobs of food serve as captivatingly clever distractions from just how long-windedly snobbish the industry can be in its excess. When you aren’t watching mouth agape at the flourishing parade of high-art comestibles that roll by, you’re often made to listen to the interviewees talking about them - and some of these individuals in question are exquisitely dull.
The biggest perpetrators of this banality are undoubtedly the food critics each episode insists on paying lip service to. Mostly, these individuals - who I’m sure make tons more money than I do for magazines and online publications writing the same way they talk - will spend their time talking up the episode’s featured chef in a way that indicates they love romantic word salads just as much as they love fennel jam. Not a single one of them in the entire series has anything worthwhile to say, except for that this particular episode’s cook’s food is, like, really really good, and that you should check out their restaurant if you’re in the area. This isn’t exactly enlightening since each episode is practically a 60-minute exercise dedicated to advertising the place in question anyway, but it’s the labour of being subjected to their psuedo (read: failed) art-critic superlatives and elitist foodie blatherings that make you want to give up the show’s many culinary delights and make yourself a bacon sandwich just to spite them. It is unquestionably this first season’s biggest annoyance - and while I haven’t checked out the ones that have followed, I certainly hope they’ve at least brought in people who know the chef better on a day-to-day basis, rather than a bunch of walking, flowery thesauruses who get a little too poetically excited about putting food in their mouths.
Ultimately, Chef’s Table lives and dies by its main subject matter - the culinary artists of the show’s name. It is only interesting when its chefs are. And when taking in the series’ full run of six instalments, judging the season’s overall quality is actually a closer call than one might think. Dining buffs will love the show regardless - there are too many beautiful camera shots and too many sentimental eulogies about both dish and cook alike to put their love of this world under threat. However, those of us coming into the show with more experiences at Norm’s than with nouvelle cuisine will be left scratching their heads at the ostentatiousness of some of its proclaimed virtuosos. The first two episodes are particularly testing - Massimo Bottura, head chef of the Osteria Francescana in Modena (named by the documentary’s production point as the third-best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino), is a typically ebullient, amiable Italian with an adventurous back-story involving both his professional development via the unforgiving trevails of French cooking, and a cross-Atlantic romance with his American wife. Neither of these things however do much to hide the fact that he spends his time upsetting his compatriots by mixing subversive bastardizations on Italian cuisine with the minified proportions expected of such high-echelon eateries - the tiny, single-layered ‘Crunchy Part of the Lasagna’ being just one of the appetite-frustrating dishes shown off in his dedicated episode. Episode two meanwhile focuses on Dan Barber, head of New York’s organically sound Blue Hill restaurant - an establishment whose stern, toiling kitchen head is keen to point out has a mission to bring expertly-grown, non-GMO produce to the tables of everyone, somehow forgetting that the restaurant’s price tags of $80-$100 for a full-course meal ensures such tables will only be those belonging to the middle-class at best. Episode five’s Ben Shewry, cuisinier-in-chief at the similarly-praised Attica in Melbourne, definitely brings the artistic flair with a typically Antipodean down-to-earth approach, but seems so worn out when talking about juggling his craft with his family obligations that you kind of want the food shots to take over for thirty minutes just so he can catch a rest and get his energy back. It is these particular episodes that show Chef’s Table at its worst. Without the clips of food porn to interrupt proceedings with, its celebration of the food world’s summit struggles to remain engaging, and falls into rambling lulls that are boring, long and ridiculously out of touch with reality.
Luckily, the remaining figureheads that make up the rest of the season’s run are more than worth keeping the reservation. Argentina’s Francis Mallmann in particular is exactly the kind of individual you’d expect the show to put a focus on from the outset. With camera time dedicated to both the treating of his trainee chefs to pit-cooking field trips in rural Patagonia lodges, and his monologues dictating his own maverick, self-motivated life philosophies, he’s the kind of ultra-talented eccentric that most people can imagine pulling the strings of the uptown, high-market eatery down the street from them. Niki Nakayama, head of Los Angeles’ N/Naka restaurant, also stands out not just because she’s the only female chef the series gives time to (a subtle indicator of the gender inequality that persists in the industry), but also for her determination in making a name for herself - despite it bringing her into conflict with the traditionally male-oriented Japanese family model she was born into. But like many of the courses these fine artisans serve up on a daily basis, the best is perhaps best saved for last. Sweden’s Faviken restaurant not only sits so far from urban civilization that it requires an overnight stay at the residence, but it is also the grounds on which the thoroughly likeable Magnus Nilsson plies his trade - concocting dishes that bring together both the plentiful seasonal yields of the surrounding Scandinavian countryside, with a quietly passionate sense of uncanny, self-taught technique that give these ingredients an entirely new dimension. With these three and their fierce insistence on breaking culinary molds, the show’s sense of self-importance takes a significant backstep. The pointless critic interviews and the giant plates boasting modest dishes give way to actual substance, finally presenting the stories of hard craft that the show was meant to be talking about in the first place.
It does take a bit of effort, and a raised eyebrow or two, to get to these moments among all of Chef’s Table’s food fashionista posturing. Such over-indulgences are probably to be expected from a fine dining food documentary though - you can’t entirely remove the exclusivity of a scene that prides itself on being a more refined experience than others. When Chef’s Table at least attempts to perform such a feat though, it actually remembers the essence of its mission - to capture the affection for food from the perspective of those who make it. At those points, it’s hard not to buy into the painstaking struggles for excellence that its focal individuals endure on a daily basis. In fact, doing so is often as delicious, and as rewarding, as the gastronomical acclaim they strive for.