Unless you're a veritable foodie, cooking shows can be a bore. Shows like "Chopped" and "Top Chef" try to reproduce the adrenaline-filled experience of the kitchen with contests, deadlines and absurd challenges ("Make a dessert using whelk snails and lemon bars in the next hour, and win against these five contestants!"). But the thrill is short-lived, and these reality show tropes grow tiresome as the act of cooking becomes just another component of a game show. On the other side of the spectrum is the dry process-oriented cooking show in which cooking becomes a skill learned by rote, effectively stripping the act of its personality and inventive spirit. Modern cooking shows too often eclipse the essence of being a chef.
Not "Chef's Table." David Gelb, director of the critically-acclaimed "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," has committed to entering the mind of the chef with this six-part Netflix original series. Each episode focuses on a different world-renowned chef, from a rogue chef cooking on remote island in Patagonia to a man who reinvented Italian cooking by infusing his grandmother's recipes with modern art. "Chef's Table" is less concerned with the mechanics of cooking or the heat of the kitchen than it is with the chefs themselves. In 45-minute segments, Gelb takes a deep dive into the forces that drive these obsessive chefs on their quests for sensory perfection. Its robust philosophical and visual flavor is a welcome sophisticated addition to Netflix's slate. One warning, though: Do not watch on an empty stomach.
“Every time I open a cheese like this, I get emotional. In my blood, there’s balsamic vinegar. My muscles are made by Parmigiano.” Meet Massimo Bottura, Ben Shewry, Niki Nakayama, Francis Mallmann, Dan Barber, and Magnus Nilsson. For these Michelin Star chefs, food is not just necessary to sustain life — it's life itself.
Indeed, there's little difference between the processes by which these chefs craft their cuisine and the way in which they live their lives. This is the compelling current that runs through every episode. "I use cooking to send this message about a way of living," says Mallman, the off-the-grid chef from Patagonia. "I’m always cooking in these remote places with wild fires. So my message is get off your office chair or your sofa and go out." A food critic says of farm-to-table sustainable chef Dan Barber, "his goal is more than to just feed people in a restaurant. He wants to change his community and ultimately, the world." Every chef has his or her own credo, and the meat of each episode is devoted to unpacking both its origins and its manifestations in the food.
Our conception of food is deeply rooted in identity; this is what drives much of its cultural hype. In "Chef's Table," the influence of personal history is overwhelming. Childhood memories and a deep sense of place drive the innovation process across the board. “I’m trying to take you back to when you were a child,” Massimo says of his culinary ethos. He recalls sitting under his grandmother's kitchen table as she sculpted tortellini, watching the flour cascade onto the floor. (One of Massimo's most famous dishes is based on this memory.)
Potent visuals like these help us enter the chefs' subjectivities in order to understand how creation takes root: Mallman, too, says eating his food is like "going back to those times of childhood." He imbues his dishes with a sense of home. "It's a land that you learn to love very slowly. You understand the winds, storms, solitude," he says. "Once you understand how she is, you start to love Patagonia."
But the chefs aren't simply trying to recreate the past. Embedded in this nostalgia is a burning desire for reinvention. Though he's now an iconic figure in the country, Massimo's attempts to modernize the Italian home-cooked meal were initially considered "a type of treason." His plates, which look like pristine miniature sculptures, are informed by his exposure to modern art. "Only with a kind of sensationalism and provocative attitude, am I going to break through the convention of the Italian kitchen," he explains. Like Massimo, the other chefs remain true to their origins while simultaneously reinterpreting them.
Another characteristic that unites the chefs is a fiercely independent spirit. When asked what draws him to cooking, Mallman says, "It's the freedom of believing only in myself, not letting myself be led by anybody. I wanted to be my own. I wanted to do whatever I wanted." But this pursuit of freedom comes at a cost. As each of the chefs strives for self-actualization through the creation process, something important is sacrificed. Two of the men admit to neglecting their children in favor of the kitchen; another takes a step back from his career to be present in family life. Dan Barber, for his part, muses that being a chef entails "being attracted to a certain kind of abuse. It’s exhilarating, and the challenge is: How much of it can you stand? Is that the way to live a happy life? I don’t have the answer."
"Chef's Table" is a one-of-a-kind meditation on creativity. In exploring the identity and artistic process of each chef, the series transcends the genre of the cooking show. Gelb masterfully delves into the nuances of the craft while staying rooted in universal themes through the personal lens. It's remarkable, if you think about it, that human beings have transformed a necessary element of life into an extension of personhood.
There's one mantra that every chef shares: "You have to respect what you cook." Thankfully, David Gelb respects more than just the food—he respects the chefs, too.