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This beautifully shot survey of international chefs is one of Netflix’s best shows.
When it comes to the never-ending churn of programming popping up each week, Netflix has immediate plays and long-term plays. When Adam Sandler releases a new movie on Netflix, it’s an immediate play. Sandler has been on the late-night circuit all week, and your Netflix home page almost certainly is begging you to watch The Do-Over and to do it now, before anybody tells you how awful it is, not that you’re likely to care.
Netflix’s home page is also probably aggressive in suggesting you tune in for the second season of Bloodline and perhaps for the acclaimed, and quite excellent, comedy Lady Dynamite.
There’s less urgency surrounding Chef’s Table, which also launched on Netflix on Friday, May 27. It’s the second season for David Gelb’s culinary docuseries, which premiered its first run of six episodes last April with minimal publicity and one of the stranger buzz cycles for any Netflix show.
The normal cycle goes: Week 1 — Everybody talks about a show. Week 2 — Stragglers get apologetic about being late to a show. Week 3 — Oh look, Netflix has a new show.
With Chef’s Table, I still see people discovering the show and doing so as if they had never known it existed previously, which can’t be said for most viewers starting on Orange Is the New Black today. Because it’s essentially timeless and impossible to spoil, Chef’s Table is a long-term play for Netflix. It’s content that’s always there and, in addition to the two seasons currently available, two additional seasons are on their way.
I don’t know, then, if I’m doing something wrong in reviewing the second season of Chef’s Table and telling you that it’s fantastic and as satisfying as the first season. Maybe you’re supposed to just find that out on your own.
For those who missed Chef’s Table when it premiered, the series functions as an extension of Gelb’s 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Each episode focuses on an internationally renowned chef and usually on his or her equally internationally renowned restaurant. Beyond that basic structure, there’s no rule for what a Chef’s Table episode is going to spend its 45-55 minutes looking at.
In addition to Gelb, who directed the episode on Indian chef Gaggan Anand, the second season features returning directors Clay Jeter, Brian McGinn and Andrew Fried, and it might be interesting to look back and forth between seasons to see how much the interests of individual directors steer their approach to the chefs and how the chefs, few lacking in confidence, explain their own genius. All have things in common, but none are identical.
The episode on Chicago’s boundary-breaking Grant Achatz of Alinea is simultaneously a portrait of an avant-garde artist of the kitchen and an inspirational recounting of Achatz’s battle with cancer, a struggle that nearly left him unable to taste. Larger-than-life tattooed Brazilian renegade Alex Atala of D.O.M. marches deep into the Amazon to talk about sustainability and our eating ecosystem. Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol explains the elevation of street food and the pioneering of Mexican fine dining. Chip-on-his-shoulder Anand’s tale is one of finding himself as an outsider cooking Indian in Thailand, but then learning to take back his native food from colonializing influences. Ana Ros of Slovenia’s Hisa Franko explains the relationship of food and love, relating in no small part to her husband-sommelier, Valter. And Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn digs deep to remember her upbringing in Brittany, France, while also mourning her late father.
The line from viewers who don’t like cooking shows is that they don’t see a point in watching people prepare food that we at home will never get to taste. Chef’s Table often works in direct response to that concern, with a tantalizing form of sensory selectivity. In contrast to the blunt immediacy of Vice’s Action Bronson series F—, That’s Delicious, you can go whole episodes of Chef’s Table without anybody even trying to tell you what something tastes like, perhaps because just watching or even licking your TV will never allow you to experience a dish in that manner. But you can look at a transcendently plated entree and understand its conception and composition. If a chef is playing on color or on form, that’s all there in HD. The theatricality of a dining experience can be comprehended, even if you can’t smell the puffs of nutmeg that Achatz rigged to come out of a pillow. You can hear an explanation for the progression of a 23-course tasting menu and appreciate on an intellectual level how it would work. You can watch chefs talk about their development and observe how they interact with their staff and, in that, you can understand their whole philosophy.
Calling Chef’s Table food porn is only occasionally accurate and always reductive, since its sensuality only sometimes focuses on a glistening slab of trout or a vibrant mole sauce or the manipulation of science to create a perfect bite that defies explanation. Atala’s episode spends as much time in the wilderness foraging and fishing as it does in the restaurant. Achatz sketches and brainstorms on a board as much as he executes dishes on-camera. Crenn’s segment uses a literal trip back to her homeland to represent so much of what makes her cuisine unique.
The chefs in individual episodes are the stars, and to watch Chef’s Table is almost certainly to find yourself going online and looking into plane fares to Bangkok or Sao Paulo — or at least to investigate when the next available reservations are at restaurants you may never visit. But as a series, perhaps even more than the directors, I’d want to salute cinematographers Will Basanta and Adam Bricker, who give the impression of capturing the essence of each city and each restaurant. The DPs are the great unifiers for Chef’s Table, as is composer Duncan Thum, who earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination for the first-season episode on Argentinean chef Francis Mallmann. Every episode is a symphony of kitchen sounds, accompanying Thum’s scores and the appetizing visual poetry.
There are still a dozen Netflix seasons, even for high-profile shows I adore, that I haven’t finished, but I went through the six new Chef’s Table episodes in a near-binge. Whether you seek it out today or stumble upon it in two years (when there will be at least an additional 10 episodes), and even if billboards and your personalized algorithm don’t push it on you, Chef’s Table is one of Netflix’s best shows.