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Review: How ‘Chef’s Table’ Exposes the Gap Between Intent and Reality

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Massimo Bottura, Dan Barber, and Magnus Nilsson get the Netflix documentary treatment

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 danger of binge watching is not the over-satiety, which fades relatively quickly, but the clarity and pattern recognition sustained sensation affords. By hour three of House of Cards or Daredevil or Berlin Alexanderplatz, as the finer points of the narrative begin to blur, the faults in the underlying architecture come into focus. It's like staring at macroeconomic data, O Late Market Capitalist Cog. By hour five, the senses are deranged but, as Rimbaud suggested, perhaps to better perceive higher truths. This can be a hazard for Netflix.

Due to a misunderstanding with how the screeners were ordered on the media preview site (which allows media to access the episodes before they are available to the public), I reviewed the "first" three episodes out of order. But the mixup was auspicious. That trio of episodes — focusing on the chefs Niki Nakayama, Francis Mallmann, and Ben Shewry — seemed bound up on obligation, specifically to whom a chef is obligated professionally, to whom a person is obligated personally, and to whom an artist is obligated creatively. The dry rub, as they say, is often these obligations pull in opposing directions.

The remaining three episodes profile Massimo Bottura of Modena's Osteria Francescana, Dan Barber of New York's Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Magnus Nilsson of Jarpen's Fäviken. To a viewer, these appear as the inaugural episode, the second episode, and the final episode, respectively. To be very clear, this is a review of the show, not of the restaurants or of the chefs themselves. But taken as a trio, this three-hour chunk is pretty flawed.

The strongest episode, and probably why it is the lead-off batter, is the David Gelb-directed one devoted to Massimo Bottura. The creative credo of Bottura, a bearded bespectacled respected receptacle of three Michelin stars at his Osteria Francescana, is simple: He re-imagines traditional Modenese cuisine through a modern lens. Sometimes one needn't over-explain. The closest I've gotten to eating at Osteria Francescana is reading through his terrific book, Never Trust A Skinny Chef. However, one needs only run through the names of a few of his dishes to get a whiff of wit: An eel swimming up the Po River. Snails in the vineyard. Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in different temperatures and textures. Beautiful psychedelic, spin-painted veal, not flame grilled and, of course, the famous Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.

Of the entire six episodes, Bottura's is the one suffused with the most love. Lightness literally bursts forth from the plate, from his relationship with his wife, Lara Gilmore, from a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Early in the episode we see Bottura negotiate the mercato centrale of Modena, chatting with the vendors, calling out, "Ciao, vecchio!" evaluating cases of beautiful mushrooms, munching on grapes. It was the picture of a man at ease with his world.

Bottura's episode is the picture of a man at ease with his world.

That's when I started to smile, and I didn't stop until an hour later, when the episode ends. One reason is the joyous creativity that shines through. Another was a handful of just terrific scenes, including one in a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory in which an old man auscultates a wheel of cheese, like a weathered cheese internist, to determine if it's ready. Or another, my favorite, in which the restaurant's staff roll out pasta for the osteria with an aged casalinghe who happened to be the pasta Yoda. The scene played out in a sun-filled room, singing old Italian songs in loose ensemble. Mostly though, I smiled because the episode dwells on Bottura's relationship with Gilmore.

Not everyone, in fact very few of us, ever find a love as supportive and nurturing as Bottura's and Gilmore's. As the chef puts it, "When two people speak the same language, you can have a dialogue. We speak the language of creativity." It wasn't always easy going for Bottura. The generally accepted narrative put forth is that the Modenese rejected Bottura's updates out of provincial conservatism. His restaurant was empty more than it was full for a long time. (My own wife, it should be noted, challenged this accepted narrative as self-serving. I countered, like an automat, some things can be both self-serving and fundamentally correct.)

Through it all, Gilmore encouraged him to refine and hone his vision with a mixture of pedantry and love. We have, it turns out, Gilmore to thank for exposing Bottura to Maurizio Cattelan at the 1997 Venice Biennale, whose work, 2,000 taxidermied pigeons pooping on the walls, crystallized Bottura's will to pursue his vision at Osteria Francescana.

Besides the restaurant, the couple have two children, Alexa and Charlie. Charlie, the younger one, was born "with a rare genetic syndrome and requires special care." Though he makes an appearance in the film, that line comes from a terrific New Yorker profile from 2013 and isn't addressed in Chef's Table. In a series that tugs at heart strings, I very much appreciated the complexity of dealing with a child with a horizontal identity wasn't distilled into a neat narrative point. All in all, if the review was isolated to Episode 1: Massimo Bottura, I'd give it as many stars as there are in the sky.

But it doesn't. The remaining two episodes, which focus on Dan Barber and Magnus Nilsson, betray some sloppiness. I've happily had the occasion to eat at Stone Barns and know Barber's talent firsthand. I've never gotten out to Sweden but have another Phaidon title, Fäviken, to familiarize me with Nilsson's kitchen. Regardless, as stated, this is a review of Chef's Table, the series, not the actual tables.

Dan Barber is an undeniably important chef. His stance on sustainability and his very vocal role in food justice, paired with considerable skill, mean he is more than just the quartermaster for the one percent. But, the above can be true and it is still risible when, in one of her elegaic talking head segments Ruth Reichl says, "Dan is really the model for who the modern chef is, whose goal is to not just feed people a delicious dinner in their restaurant but wants to change his community and ultimately the world. That's a very different place to be than a chef has ever been before."

I'm calling bullshit on Ruth Reichl. Can it really be true that there has been no chef in the history of cheffing who has tried to change his community and ultimately the world? Um, Alice Waters? Perhaps Ruth is just being imprecise. Perhaps she means in the specific way Barber is trying — a braiding of food policy, agriculture, and gastronomy. But if that's the case, she should say so. Otherwise grand pronouncements such as these, and a handful of other statements throughout the season, undermine the true importance of the featured chef.

What I found most interesting about the entire episode wasn't what Barber does (only because I'm so familiar), and it wasn't the rather lightly treated death of his mother when he was four (transformative but seemed dealt with glibly). It wasn't even finally figuring out how he's so skinny (cocaine!... kidding, long distance running!). It is the vast abyss between his intent and the reality of Blue Hill's dining room.

There is a vast abyss between Barber's intent and the reality of Blue Hill's dining room.

Ruth echoes the general sentiment when she says the aim of the restaurant is to educate people. A little later, Barber says, the clientele who come to both Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns ask a lot of questions about the origins of the food and who grew it and how it's grown. "That's a starting point for a conversation," he says. Ironically, what we see next is a server explaining her offerings: "Heirloom tomato with basil seed followed by Jim Myers' Indigo Rose experimental tomatoes with goat cheese." To which the diner replies not with a battery of incisive questions like, for instance, "Who the fuck is Jim Myers and why am I eating his weirdo tomatoes?" but the much more standard, "Great. Looks nice," and "Thanks."

Either this is a particularly nasty trick of editing or the conversations Barber really wants to have about about provenance, supply chain, land use, the importance of a maintaining a varied crop portfolio, happen within the echo chamber of the food world. Diners at his restaurants are simply consuming another luxury commodity. If it is the former, whoa, way harsh, Gelb. If it's the latter, we're all doomed; even a chef as brilliant and driven as Barber can't escape the role of court jester.

As for the final episode in the season, the one focusing on Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken, it was okay. It was, of all the episodes, the most visually stunning, just as the similar, though more cogent episode devoted to Nilsson in Mind of a Chef was, too. Fäviken is located, as we're given to understand, in the middle of nowhere in Sweden. And anyone who had any doubts, let this hour allay them: The middle of nowhere in Sweden is the epicenter of beauty. But beyond Nilsson's exceptionalism, which is apparent, this is also the least insightful of the six episodes. I didn't mind that, honestly. By that point even I — lover of StoryCorps and other programs that make you cry — had had enough "Trauma X + Challenge Y = Triumph Z."

I do feel duty-bound to note it is generally poor form to misspell the names of the talking heads. This is Emilia Terragni, publisher of Phaidon. Not Emilia Torragni, who doesn't exist. There's a whole mess of these identification issues throughout the series. (Between this review and last, I got into a fairly lengthy email exchange with Netflix's PR about it.) Faith Willinger identified as Food Writer, Food & Wine. Peter Kaminsky, Food Writer, New York Times. Maria Fontoura, Food Writer, Wall Street Journal. None of these are wholly inaccurate, since each of those people have indeed written for the publication in question. But Willinger and Kaminsky do so much more that to identify them primarily with either publication is misleading. As for Fontoura, that's like saying "Joshua David Stein, Relationship Writer, Details," which I wrote for once, years ago about the rise of the lesbro, which isn't even a thing.

This is just a quibble, perhaps, in an otherwise standout series, but it's the kind of laziness none of the chefs profiled would stand for on the line. In fact, they'd be pretty pissed. Nonetheless, the three episodes capture some moments of real beauty, natural, human, and culinary. So, I guess all you can say is "Great. Looks nice. Thanks."

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

All six episodes of Chef's Table debuted on Netflix April 26. Stein had previously reviewed the episodes featuring Ben Shewry, Niki Nakayama, and Francis Mallmann, giving that trio five out of five stars.