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It’s taken three seasons but Chef’s Table, which debuted last weekend on Netflix, finally gave into its natural inclination and took up residency in France, the culinary center of the universe or at least, its center in the cosmology of the series mastermind, David Gelb. It’s a weird season, abbreviated in its number of episodes and released without the celebratory hora that accompanied the first two more robust seasons.
Gelb and his team have a killer’s instinct for the resonant story.
Since the cull of chefs — Alain Passard, Alexandre Couillon, Adeline Grattard, and Michel Troisgros — are homogenous in terms of nationality, one might hope to discover by means of culinary multiple regression analysis something that is quintessentially and uniquely French about them. But happily, the four seem selected not for being uniquely French but being uniquely unique. I say "happily" for each in his or her own way is the hero of his or her own beautiful story. Anyway, as one can well see from current events, trying to define what is quintessentially French is a nightmare.
Gelb and his team have a killer’s instinct for the resonant story. We are just injured gazelles and he is the lion of slo-mo and Vivaldi. We limp along before him, trying not to be moved and yet, stalked by the crescendos and cinematography, we are. The dominant emotion is often but not always sadness. Come to think of it, this is the least angsty bunch of episodes yet. That’s one of the reasons this is also the most successful of the three groups of episodes hitherto released. In previous seasons the narrative see-saw seemed too heavily weighted on trauma, But in this slew of tales, the tone is major, not minor. These are tales of whoa, not tales of woe.
The first of the four episodes concerns Alain Passard, a kindly snowy-haired gentleman who resembles a munificent Hugh Laurie. Passard owns the Michelin three-star restaurant L’Arpege in Paris’s 7th arrondissement. One of a group of legendary chefs named Alain, Passard is a man obsessed with vegetables, gestures, and gestures made with vegetables The narrative arc, such as it is, concerns the chef’s decision to move L’Arpege from a carnivorous menu to a vegetarian one. "Working with meat became very painful," he says. But that was 1998. It’s old news and the narrative itself is mostly gestural.
Passard is a beautiful man with a beautiful hand, a beautiful restaurant, an idyllic garden, an infectious enthusiasm, and an uncompromising sense of artistic fearlessness. This is a 45-minute caress. Like any 45-minute caress, there are moments of chafing awkwardness. For instance, just after Passard says how painful it is to work with meat, we see him at his farmhouse placing three live lobsters into a raging fire to burn to death on a grill. I can guarantee you, working with meat is a lot more painful for them than it is for Passard.
At what point does the fetishization of the other transcend exotisme into a true and genuine appreciation?
The second episode follows Alexandre Couillon in his quest to do for Noirmoutier, a small island on the Bay of Biscay, what René Redzepi did for Scandinavia with Noma. If one thought watching Passard walk among the peaches was picturesque, wait until you see Couillon waiting for the daily catch at the ends of the world. This rescuing a cuisine from oblivion is a perennial theme for Chef’s Table: Atala in Brazil, Olvera in Mexico, Shewry in Australia, Ros in Slovenia, and Anand in India. Conceptually, these are noble projects all. But, narratively, it does wear thin. This isn’t to say the episode is a wash. There’s plenty particular about Couillon that makes the minutes zip by, especially when there’s a breathtaking sunset thrown in there occasionally. His relationship with his eldest daughter is both common and a pleasure to watch. His father and his father’s mustache deserve their own poetic miniseries. The burden of his last name — couillon is French for ‘turd" — is fertile ground for exploration but since the meaning is glossed over in the episode, one is left vaguely confused as to what exactly the nature of that burden is.
The third of the French episodes features Adeline Grattard of the Parisian Franco-Chinese restaurant Yam'Tcha. As is generally the case, there is hardly any narrative movement here. Instead we see Grattard and her husband Chi Wah Chan at work, at home, and abroad. Grattard is an enthusiastic lover of the "exotic," which in this case means Hong Kong, Wah Chan’s country of birth. If episode one was about gesture, episode two about salvation, the third episode is gently about appropriation. At what point does the fetishization of the other transcend exotisme into a true and genuine appreciation? The answer is, as the episode makes clear, at Yam'Tcha, where Grattard wraps French and Chinese culinary traditions one within the other into a cultural ourosboros or, as she serves it, a Stilton cheese-stuffed bao.
The final episode’s hero is Michel Troisgros, scion of the legendary Troisgros family of Maison Troisgros, who took over from his father in 1983 and remade the restaurant à son goût. Nearing 40, Troisgros is a man in transition. His son, Cesar, is readying to take the reins from his father and the restaurant itself is on the eve of a move to a renovated chateaux from its historic home in Roanne. Upon the petite but pugnacious shoulders of Michel Troisgros rests a legacy not just of the Troisgros name but of all nouvelle cuisine. He argues with his ghosts to break free from their spell. This is what Harold Bloom calls agon. Largely, he wins the tussle.
The success of Chef’s Table: France lies not so much in the individual episodes per se but in the metapatterns one observes from their aggregate. Two interrelated reasons stand out. First of all, Gelb has finally realized no chef is an island. The previous seasons have focussed almost exclusively on the main protagonist and the plates he or she prepares. This season is much more an ensemble cast. With the exception of Passard, each episode broadens the scope of the narrative to include partners and children. Of course, family drama has always been a part of Chef’s Table, but often used in a way to gin up drama through which the chef could work.
Chef's Table: France isn't about chefs, tables, or even France. It's about relationships.
But this season, the stories of family — of Michel and his wife and their sons; Adeline and her husband and their kids; Alexandre and his wife and their daughters — have gained parity. They aren’t a thing to work through or biographical factor that simply informs what gets placed on the chef’s table. They are infused in its legs and its surface and the food and the flatware, the protein and the spice. Chef’s Table: France isn’t about chefs or tables or even France. It’s about relationships. And that makes for a much richer story.
The second strength of the season is one made possible by something that might be actually quintessentially French. One of the through lines from these episodes is how close each of the chefs are to their farms or gardens, both physically and philosophically. Each one either owns or has familial access to his or her own produce. This is, I’m sure, by design but also it doesn’t seem to be so much a statement to be made as simply the way things are in France. Two of the restaurants are in Paris; one is in Roanne (Troisgros) and the other on an island (Noirmoutier). But within easy reach are vast tracts of farmland where Edenic gardens flourish and rough hewn farmers, handsome in the orchard mist, wander. No wonder Passard is a veggie-obsessed gentleman. With peaches so lush how could he not be?
This familiarity with both the land and its largesse, paired with an institutional, almost dynastic knowledge of cuisine, allows the chefs profiled to be free in their vision. For the first time since we all started binge-watching Chef’s Table, we see a culture in which cuisine has reached a neutral buoyancy with the rest of the emotional, artistic, and intellectual milieu. So it is natural that Troisgros would express his admiration of the painter Lucio Fontana with an egg-and-black truffle dish or that Passard would think of his loaves of bread as the fruit of an artistic gesture.
The season, short though it may be, is not without its faults. One is executional and the other is inherent. I once heard New York City-based chef Mario Carbone giving instructions to a cook that the dough of a tortellino mustn’t be too thick for if it is, at the points where the dough is pinched, an unpleasing and noticeable toughness occurs. At times in this season the storytelling is like too-thick pasta dough. The tools to deepen a viewer’s relationship with the story should never overshadow the story itself. Yet, for instance, when we hear Grattard describe the hypnotizing sounds of Hong Kong — "It’s an extremely noisy city. There’s the sound of air conditioning everywhere. The sound of taxis. When you cross the street, the light makes a sound...." — we see only quick cuts of Hong Kong and the swell of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major. I found myself yearning for the honking and the moan of ACs.
But sometimes cool boredom is okay too.
The other more difficult-to-avoid flaw of this project is the unrelenting pressure to make every moment magical. Even in these four episodes, there were dozens of times when the music cut out or the images slowed down or sped up in ways that were clearly engineered to elicit an emotional reaction. Some moments are magical, but most of them aren’t. They are just moments. It’s hard to fault Gelb for this. We are after all a society so obsessed with maximizing experience we routinely swap the neutral bread of a sandwich for strips of deep fried chicken. But sometimes cool boredom is okay too, for the rarity of a moment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for its magicality.
With only four episodes, statistically this season was unlikely to yield the most magical of all moments of Chef’s Table. But there it is, just there with five minutes left in the final episode, an off-hand moment of brilliant emotion. The sky is overcast and a farmhouse crumbles in the background. Pierre Troisgros, Michel’s father, who we’ve seen frozen in photographs in the bloom of youth, stands by the drying leaves of a grape vine near where his son will reimagine the restaurant he once called his own. With a half-smile he sings a few lines from Yves Montand’s "Les Feuilles Mortes" as he tosses the leaf into the air. "Les feuilles mortes se ramessent a la pelle / Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi," he sings ("Dead leaves must be picked by a shovel / Memories and regrets too"). Then, perhaps realizing the next line — "and the north wind takes them / into the cold night of oblivion" — might be too pregnant with meaning, he chuckles and says, "Let’s stop here."
Rating: 4 (out of 5) stars
Chef's Table: France is streaming now on Netflix.
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