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Netflix comes at you in feast or famine, like a poorly paced tasting menu. Take Chef's Table, which I've eagerly awaited since the debut of its first season. That April, like a dog left alone with an open bag of IAMS, I took in too much too quickly and a sort of gassy haze descended upon me. The chefs, their stars, their poetry, and enough slow-motion to undo all of Koyaanisqatsi blurred into one big elegiac rhapsody to... something. What exactly is unclear, but whatever it was, it was, I remember, deeply felt.
This time, when the six episodes of the second season became available, I resolved to watch it like a normal person, to savor each episode. After all, the spread of chefs seemed a little more interesting in season two. They aren't JV, exactly, but they aren't exactly obvious either. The first season, if you remember, went after either low-hanging fruit, following chefs with cultish followings like Dan Barber, Francis Mallmann, Massimo Bottura, and Magnus Nilsson; or after unexpected fruit, like N/Naka's Niki Nakayama and Attica's Ben Shewry, who felt so obscure as to be randomly appended. This made for uneven viewing and a sense of malaise throughout.
The six chefs of season two, on the other hand, are all about the same timbre. Among the most well-known, at least to me, are Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago), followed closely by Alex Atala (D.O.M., São Paulo) and Enrique Olvera (Pujol, Mexico City). Of the other three — Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco), Gaggan Anand (Gaggan, Bangkok), and Ana Ros (Hisa Franko, Slovenia) — I knew shamefully little. But I knew enough to realize they weren't far behind the other three in stature. I looked forward to leisurely, ponderous, and careful viewing.
But even best laid plans are laid to waste by binging. For an entire day and night, back-to-back the respective tables were set and dined upon and cleared and set and dined upon and cleared until this season, too, became one very long episode, like a food version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Once again, a cloud descended. And yet in the end, through the fog came clarity. Certain patterns emerged that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Meta-analysis, as Netflix well knows, is perhaps the great unintended consequence of binge-watching.
For instance, the geographic shift eastward and down. While the first season concerned itself mostly with America and Europe, this season, happily, moves east to Asia and south to Mexico and Brazil. There isn't actually that much of an actual geographic change. The season one tally — two North Americans, one South American, two Europeans, and an Antipodean — matches closely season two, with three North Americans, one South American, one Southeast Asian, and one European. But it feels much more variegated — primarily because what one feels isn't so much geographical diversity as it is socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Praise be to the filmmakers for venturing into non-Anglo culture with the same admiration usually reserved for old white French men.
There are of course shows nominally about non-Western food cultures: One thinks immediately of Tony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. But even Parts focuses not on those cultures per se but on the Westerner's exploration of and reaction to them. Chef's Table is different. It is the chef's eyes through which we see this culture, and that makes all the difference. This diversity is even more pronounced given that much of Olvera's episode (as well as virtually all of Atala's and vast swathes of Anand's) are spent not in the restaurant but gathering ingredients from indigenous populations of Brazil, Mexico, and in Anand's case, India. The show specifically addresses how fine dining can help conserve and protect these local communities.
Anand, Atala, and Olvera all share this motivation: to make the world realize the value of their national cuisines, its constituent ingredients, and by extension, the communities from which those ingredients come. That is the strategy; fine dining is the tactic. Achatz, on the other hand, is motivated by an aggressive intellectual curiosity. He is the most solipsistic of the bunch, like a clinical version of Francis Mallmann. With some justification, he has absolute belief in his own genius. His table is the altar before which we meal in order to be awed.
Interestingly, and infuriatingly, when the filmmakers profile male chefs, the narrative is foregrounded in professional skill, technical virtuosity, and political passion. When they build stories around the female chefs — Crenn and Ros — the approach becomes much more New Historicism than New Criticism, more biography, less art. Crenn is primarily a poet for whom food is a vehicle of emotion. Crenn, who was adopted at a young age, seems to have had an ideal childhood with loving parents and siblings, but here, the filmmakers dwell on the fact she was adopted at 18 months old. The central drama is that her mother is a little sick and she goes back to France to wistfully walk in her childhood bedroom. She stares off into space a lot and a huge mazel to crew, they made her cry!
Ros, a Slovenian savant who never attended culinary school, transforms the ingredients of her country, but one doesn't feel the weight of a manifesto above her. Instead, at least from the episode, inscrutable mystical love drives her. And even though her life seems peculiarly angst-free — she's happily married, raises two children above the restaurant, and is fucking slaying it professionally — a conflict with her father is manufactured and given huge space to play out.
Contrast with the gentlemen. Achatz is given long and TED Talk-ian soliloquies about innovation. Atala mentions being a punk and doing drugs and, glancingly, having a child, but mostly is seen traipsing about the Amazon being hella manly then contemplating ingredients in his kitchen through a thick white and, frankly, very handsome beard. Olvera and Anand both are cast as saviors for their country's cuisine, which is to some extent true. Surely some of this is benign, simply a matter of casting. But I do question the filmmakers' need — and more generally our own — to situate the genius of our heroines in personal trauma but that of our heroes in valiant effort and extraordinary skill.
Another irritant made apparent through a single-sitting viewing is the over-reliance on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best as both a criteria for inclusion in the series and the singular goal of the chefs selected. Under the title of each restaurant is its San Pellegrino ranking, as if to establish the bona fides of its chef. (The exception is Hisa Franko, which doesn't appear on the list.) The camera lingers lovingly on the little silver plaque outside of D.O.M. like it's the blood of a lamb. This house, it announces, is chosen.
But the list isn't shorthand for excellence. It's hardly even a sensical hornet's nest of fucked up sponsorships and classifications which can't help but be insulting and patronizing. Take Gaggan: Almost the entirety of Anand's episode is devoted to his achieving the coveted number-one spot for Best Restaurant in Asia, over Tokyo's Narisawa. (Note: The 50 Best Asia is sponsored by Visit Thailand.) Yet in the general 50 Best listing, Gaggan (10) trails Narisawa (8). That don't make no sense. Perhaps it's time the filmmakers cease to rely on such a cruddy metric. Perhaps it is time we do, too.
Let's talk about slow motion. If I didn't already know that the effort was futile, I'd advocate for a complete ban of the technique when depicting chefs at work. It's lazy emotional steroids. In these episodes, it seems to be used in two different ways. One is in the case of Ros, in which it is used to impart some sense of intense poetry to whatever mundane shit she's doing. Walking through the woods is walking through the woods. In slow-mo, it's foraging. I get it. The other most aggressive use of slow motion is in the Achatz episode, where it feels like everything that happens in the dining room unfurls in Butoh-like speed. Whereas in Ros's case slow-mo seemed like a crutch, this is more insidious. This cordons off what Achatz and his team is doing as mystical, precious, out of reach. Far from infusing the quotidian with added resonance, this use is a theistic alienation. Using slow-mo is part of a larger trend of hagiography that sullies much of our discourse about chefs, and virtually the entirety of the Achatz episode.
Finally, price. There is a fundamentally faulty underlying assumption in Chef's Table that price equals merit. As is made clear by their over-reliance of World's 50 Best to source their chefs, the producers seem to think food somehow has to be expensive to have been made by a chef. At first blush you, like I, might say, "Well, you know a tasting menu at Hisa Franko is only about $100, which isn't insane." And that's true. It's expensive, but not insane. But if you divide the cost per person of the tasting menu by the per capita income of Slovenia, you'll see Hisa Franko indexes much higher than even Alinea. I just wonder what would happen if Chef's Table did away with this fetishization of fine dining. Haven't they read Studs Terkel? Don't they know there is poetry to be had among cooks, too?
But despite the limited pool of talent and the distorted view of fine dining's importance, I'll still watch the next season, probably in a few hours just like this time around. For the fault, dear Michelin, is not in your stars, but in ourselves, that we are bingers.
Rating: 3 (out of 5) stars