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.
They say the first cut is the deepest but deep cuts are rarely the first ones, and if it’s true that chefs are rock stars — their stories are their songs — then the third season of Chef’s Table is striking for it contains both the deepest cuts and the most profound tracks of the entire series.
It’s not that the chefs in the first two-and-a-half seasons were uniformly obvious choices (though most of them were) but that the stories were limited to a few well-tuned notes. Behold the harmonic triad of Chef’s Table: the salvation of an overlooked cuisine, the drama of stern familial apparatus, the lone genius equipped with only fire, vision, and mountains. This was repeated over the course of 18 episodes in various voicing until the narrative arcs grew so repetitive watching Chef’s Table was like being on the wrong side of a legion of Sagittarii. It was the Mad Libs of Netflix:
Chef _____(Man’s Name)_____ has a vision, a vision that _____(Nation)_____ cuisine will someday be regarded with the esteem it deserves. His_____(Family Relation)_____ doubted him at first. The critics scoffed. But through hard work and vision, _____(Restaurant)_____ has become a legend. Now the restaurant occupies the_____(Number 1-50)_____ on S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
But this season, David Gelb has expanded his scope with such inventiveness and flow, it’s like the Mad Lib of Netflix. Yes, Chef’s Table is still about chefs and still about tables but for the first time, what’s on the table is a handmaiden to much more compelling narratives. In this review, I’ll look at the first three episodes: Jeong Kwan, Vladimir Mukhin and Nancy Silverton. [I’ll discuss the remaining three in the next review.]
The first half of the season is a more diverse group. In the current season, as in the second, two of the six subjects are women. In the first three, two of the three are women. Then there’s geography. Chef’s Table has never wanted for frequent flier miles either but these episodes are interesting in that the subjects are based across the globe, not just trotting around it. (They don’t just visit far flung locales because, fuck it, Netflix has the budget of the Gods.) These episodes are primarily based in in Los Angeles, Moscow, and Bukha-myeon, a village 169 miles south of Seoul.
Most importantly, only The White Rabbit, Vladimir Mukhin’s restaurant, is on the San Pellegrino treadmill. (Eye Roll Google Discovery: There’s an Osteria Mozza in Singapore which was on the Asia’s 50 Best but it is not mentioned in the program and therefore shall not be here.) As I’ve noted before, the price points of the restaurants featured in Chef’s Table range from expensive to very, very expensive. What a breath of fresh air, then, that one can get in and out of Osteria Mozza, Silverton’s flagship restaurant, for less than a hundo and that Kwan, a Buddhist nun who cooks for her sisters at a monastery, doesn’t even operate a restaurant.
If one had to — and one must — distill each of the stories into their eau de vie, they are thus: Kwan is interested in how food functions as a spiritual practice. Mukhin is interested in the forgotten foodways of Russia, but the real meat of the episode is how quickly locavorism turns into nationalism. (The episode unfolds amidst tightening sanctions against the country in response to its belligerence in Ukraine and Putin’s resultant proscription against imported foods.) Silverton’s episode is an affecting look at how one woman transformed an obsession (with dough) into a fruitful and fulfilling life. It is, therefore, really about how we deal with all the shit that we have.
One of the immediate lessons is how much infinitely richer the season is once its scope had been widened beyond fine dining. Part of this must be just that Gelb et al. got tired of telling the same story. Part of it is that they just got better at truffling out what the real story is. But most of the richness is just that they opened their ears and eyes and themselves up to the world.
There are some quibbles, sure. Too often, in fact always, the subject is presented to us with the imprimatur of a couple of white guys. This is most apparent with Jeong Kwan, the Korean monk, who is praised by Eric Ripert and Jeff Gordinier. True, Ripert, a Buddhist, brought Kwan, a Buddhist, to New York, a city, to cook for assembled journalists, and that later Gordinier, a journalist, visited her at a monastery. They are great brackets, for sure, but Kwan’s strength as a subject is self-evident. Do I wish Gelb teased Mukhin out a bit more about Russian nationalism and the ways in which The White Rabbit became edible propaganda? You betcha. Chef’s Table is great. It’s not perfect.
Pardon the heteronormativity, but what this season is is ballsy. Ballsy for looking for the deep sea currents. Ballsy for branching out. Ballsy for destroying itself. As a realized person, Kwan has seen that ego is the root of suffering. Her cooking strives to be egoless. Because she opens the season, it’s ballsy because it is spacious enough to be undermined. The first two-and-a-half seasons were ruled by ego. This season, on the other hand, has finally settled into something else, something more clear. It’s less about heroes and more about humans, less about food and more about sustenance.
Rating: Four stars out of five