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TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Chef's Table’ Digs Deep Into Creative Life

Looking at the Ben Shewry, Niki Nakayama, and Francis Mallman episodes of the documentary’s first season

Courtesy Netflix

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

The pleasure of binge watching is not the satiety, which is reached relatively quickly, but the clarity and pattern recognition sustained sensation affords. By hour three of House of Cards or Daredevil or Berlin Alexanderplatz, the finer points of the narrative begin to blur, the broader deeper strokes emerge. It's like staring into a Magic Eye, O child of the '90s. By hour five, the senses are deranged but, as Rimbaud suggested, perhaps to better perceive higher truths. This, among many other insights into viewing habits and production values, has been a boon for Netflix.

Previously, I have written about how the limitless parameters and auteur-tilted aesthetic of streaming services has turned once throw-away shots of food found in dramatic series into pure visual elegies. But with the new six-part documentary series, Chef's Table, these sequences are spun out into six roughly 45-minute etudes on notable chefs. The series, produced by David Gelb (director, Jiro Dreams of Sushi), devotes an episode to each chef: Ben Shewry, Niki Nakayama, Francis Mallmann, Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, and Magnus Nilsson.

Though I like to binge-watch, this review is focused on three episodes, featuring Shewry, Nakayama, and Mallman. Shewry's restaurant Attica is housed on a quiet street in Melbourne, Australia. Today it is rated #32 on the 50 Best restaurants and Shewry's intensely sustainable, immensely imaginative cooking brought it there. Nakayama, a nisei chef born in Los Angeles, combines a traditional kaiseki philosophy with Western ingredients at N/Naka, the restaurant she opened in 2011 and of which Jonathan Gold raved "the sheer level of cooking in this modest bungalow eclipses what you find in grand dining rooms whose chefs appear in national magazines." Finally Francis Mallman, oh, Francis Mallman, Baudelarian Patagonian bon vivant, is a voodoo nomad master of fire, an author, and chef of, among other restaurants, Buenos Aires' Patagonia Sur.

Chef's Table is not Mind of a Chef, the award-winning PBS series currently filming its fourth season. Whereas that series, admirably, depicts the mechanics of inspiration, the philology of flavor, and the quotidian if Herculean task of running a restaurant, Chef's Table focuses on impressionistic character sketches of the chefs in question. This can be frustrating at times, such as when one sees an enigmatic piece of neato-keen firewood emerge from Shewry's kitchen. One is left wanting to know what that is, how it's made, and also (never answered) how it tastes. (Quick research reveals it's a dish called "King George whiting in smoking paper bark topped with meat-infused butter" and, by all accounts, tastes delicious.)

But what one sacrifices in technical clarity, one gains in gestalt. These three chefs present three vastly different philosophies and the accompanying costs and benefits of each. By design or fortune I'm not sure, but each subject encapsulates his or her credo in a single sentence, and what makes Chef's Table more than just the latest installment in the porny cannon of chef hagiographies is that these credos apply equally to all of humanity. "No matter what you do, don't ever change and stay true to yourself," Shewry says. For Niki Nakayama, her credo is more what Japanese buddhism calls shoshin, beginner's mind: "The best advice I've been given is never stop learning. Because the moment you give up and think you know everything, you're already done as a chef." And Gelb's cameras capture Francis Mallman saying: "My big draw in life since I was very young is believing only in myself and not letting myself be led by anybody. I want to be my own. I wanted to do whatever I wanted."

Mallmann is, by far, the most charismatic of the bunch. He's the Steve McQueen of anybody who eats, and a 30- or 40-second sequence of him making his coffee on his stove on a remote island in Patagonia could serve as the original source code for outlaw cool. He's an avowed sensualist, who pursues gratification with a passion so pure it seems to have a moral imperative. Though he does have a few restaurants, he isn't, as writer Peter Kaminsky (rather wrongly identified as food writer for the New York Times) notes, "defined by his restaurants." He is, rather, defined by this exhilarating freedom. Freedom to fish a Brook trout, bake it in clay and serve it semi-raw on the banks of the Patagonian lake he caught it in; to flay lambs and smoke them in a forest; to lead a team of roustabouts in unbridled cooking adventures.

Yet this freedom clearly has sharp edges. Mallmann admirably advocates complete honesty but illustrates the point by slaying a former friend. "I no longer enjoy talking to you," he says. In one sequence, he speaks of cutting off one of his gaucho chefs, the closest thing he has to daily family, just at the moment they feel closest to him. One doesn't get the feeling this eviction from the nest is accompanied for a concern about how the fledgling lands.

Mallmann, as one might expect, lives an unconventional private life as well. He is not like Matisse, daring on canvas, conventional at home. He is more like Picasso, uncompromising in pursuing his vision at work and in the configurations of his menage. Shown in the episode is his young daughter Heloisa to whose mother, a young woman Vanina, he is not married and with whom he does not live. He sees the family 10 or so days a month, which he says "is very nice." He also has three older children, two daughters and a son. His older daughter Alexia makes an appearance and speaks warmly of her father. But left out of the episode is his son, Francisco, who, if Google stalking is correct, works as a vice president for a cruise company in Florida.

As awed as I was — and am — of Mallmann's devoted hedonism, as both a father of a son and a son of a father, what sticks with me is the wide wake of hurt and chaos the headlong pursuit of freedom leaves. At one point, Mallmann notes, "There's nothing more sad than an overcooked fish." And I found myself saying to the screen, "No, there's nothing more sad than an overlooked boy."

Had my father not pursued as recklessly — though more conventionally and less beautifully — the path Mallmann chose, perhaps this would not be what stuck with me. But, a lot of my reaction comes from having Ben Shewry's episode so fresh in my mind. Mallmann's credo is freedom, and free does he fly unencumbered. Shewry's struggle is at once messier and less radical. He struggles like many workers do, to balance achieving self-realization in his career with spending time with his family.

The general movement of Shewry's narrative is from ambition to contentment. Cameras capture Shewry coaching his son's basketball team, and the last minutes of the episode take place not in the cramped kitchen of Attica but an idyllic hangi — or traditional Kiwi pit barbecue — with Shewry surrounded by family, just as his father had done for him. And here's the thing. In terms of continuity, Mallmann has Shewry beat by a mile. He lives by his creed. But Shewry was set up to fail, for the twinned imperatives, "Never change. Stay true to yourself" are internally inconsistent.

But trumping both Mallmann and Shewry is Niki Nakayama. Though the episode devoted to her is marred by an over-reliance on one article by Maria Fontoura, a wonderful writer and editor but not, as the episode indicates, a "WSJ food writer," Nakayama's concept of shoshin is the only path that leaves one open and vulnerable to the world. For a chef, that seems to be the most important thing.

Absent any substantive exposition of the food each serves, N/Naka, to me, is by far the most compelling. Nakayama alone speaks of an obligation to her clientele, whereas the duty owed by Mallmann is to himself and for Shewry, the customer seems simply a necessary cog in the money machine to keep Attica rolling. Nakayama alone keeps a neat row of thick binders recording every detail of every customer so she can best please them. And it is clear, this entails no diminishment of herself or her creative vision. Nakayama also spends a fair amount of time discussing the flow of a kaiseki meal, in which each course is related to the one before and after it, and each ingredient is meant to be showcased and respected, not trodden upon by technique.

And that's the highest praise I could give the series of episodes, too. Chef's Table holds each man and woman tenderly as discrete complicated quantities, but allows their stories to flow one into the other — and ultimately into our own.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

All six episodes of Chef's Table debut on Netflix this Sunday, April 26. Check back for Stein's look at the other three episodes of Chef's Table, coming next week.