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The final three episodes of the third season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table lead one to the ineluctable conclusion that the time has come for the series to pack its knives and go. It is not the case that the episodes, in which Ivan Ramen’s Ivan Orkin, Tim Raue of Berlin’s Restaurant Tim Raue and Central’s Virgilio Martinez are featured, are bad television. (Well, one is, but we’ll get to that later.) However, they all would be better served by a less standardized format without the expectational heft and institutional aesthetic of Chef’s Table weighing upon them.
After watching the entirety of the series with a critic’s dispassion, both the load-bearing beams and the cosmetic tics have become noticeable to the point of annoyance. Superficially, these include the ginning up of emotional resonance by a sudden break in the music, the previously discussed reliance on slo-mo and the lascivious money shots of plated dishes.
Structurally, the series relies on the bracketing of a chef’s story by the imprimatur of talking head critics and writers, often white men and sometimes of dubious bona fides. For anyone with more than a couple episodes under her belt, the rhythm of ”chef in the fields/chef at the pass/chef at home” is as well worn as a clavé in salsa or the rolling amphibrachs of a limerick. Of course this would be the case, since every chef makes the journey from the well of inspiration to the empty plate ad infinitum, but this doesn’t make it any less tiresome to see repeated.
Chronologically, the structure is inherently problematic since we toggle between the backstory of a chef, which moves, and the present, which is static. The story arcs can be gathered into a few narrative segments, as discussed in an earlier review, but can be summarized as chef redeeming national cuisine, chef “discovering” foreign cuisine, chef reifying chef’s own genius, and chef overcoming drama through cooking.
Ironically, all this has only become apparent as the episodes have gotten better and better. As I noted earlier, the first three episodes of the third season — Jeong Kwan, Vladimir Mukhin, and Nancy Silverton — are among the strongest in the entire series. On the back half, with the exception of the episode featuring Tim Raue, the episodes are similarly triumphant story ferreting.
In the case of Ivan Orkin, a chef from New York who moved to Tokyo to open one of the most well-regarded ramen joints in the country, we meet an abrasive but ultimately kind-hearted man who, to the extent that it is a thing at all, was born with cultural dysmorphia. Ivan is transnational, the gaijin ramen emperor of Japan.
Woven into this episode are strands of love and real loss too. Orkin’s first wife, Tamie, passed away suddenly while pregnant with their second child from toxic shock syndrome and of all the episodes of Chef’s Table, Ivan’s discussion of the grieving process with his son — “He would cry for his mother and she wasn’t there so we would both cry until we stopped crying” — is perhaps the moment wherein the series reaches out from its genre of chef hagiography to touch your heart.
The other two episodes are best understood contrapuntally. Tim Raue is a Berlin chef powered by ego. He admits this in the first lines of the episode. As such, his story is the natural oppositional pair to the nun Jeong Kwan’s, which is all about the suffering the delusion of ego causes. The story of Virgilio Martinez, the subject of the final episode, is in many ways like the preface to the tale of Francis Mallmann, the rogue hero of the third episode of the first season.
Martinez’s story falls squarely within the “chef redeems his national cuisine” narrative. There’s no surprises there but the underlying subject matter is so compelling, and Martinez’s project so elegantly ingenious, one watches the episode unfold with the awe of an intellectual IMAX. Each scene, set high in the Andes or the fecund moistness of the Amazon, is more arrestingly beautiful than the last. Martinez’s conceptual coup is to organize the menu of Central according to the elevations of Peru, from -10m to 3050m and to create, at each elevation, entire edible ecosystems. There’s not much more to say than this since it is the perfect conceptual solution.
But like Mallmann’s (and Prometheus’s) discovery of fire, Martinez’s obsession with the Peruvian bounty drives him to wild nomadic peregrinations. And it is in the very last minutes of the episode, when he and his wife Pia Leon, Central’s chef de cuisine, are shown with their young son, Cristobal, when one wonders which path he will take. Will we, I tremble at the thought, have to relive the infamous bullshit self-serving scene from Mallmann’s episode in which he boasts that the mothers of the children he leaves scattered across Argentina are totally cool with his being an absentee father for he is following his passion? (The Mallmann story, by the way, is the episode that launched a thousand marital spats.)
The episode on Raue is just a mess. Unlike Martinez, Raue has not yet had his stroke of genius. Who can say whether it will ever come? From the look of it, the chef was reasonably successful then went to Asia. When he came back — after vacation? — with a surface understanding of the cuisine, he brought those flavors to Berlin fine dining and voila! Number 34 on the 50 Best list. I guess that’s an innovation but a facile one to be sure. It is not a story worth telling.
Frustratingly, there is actually a story to be told in there. Before it takes an underwhelming turn toward the exploitation of non-Western cultures, it is at least sketched. Raue was a member of the infamous 36 Boys, a Kreuzberg gang responsible for beatings, robberies, and other crimes in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Raue puts into words with heart-breaking honesty how the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father spurred a rage which built like a poisonous bomb inside of him, and how he found satisfaction only in the infliction of his pain on others.
Sadly the episode suffers from a lack of focus. Is it about how he’s a jerkface in the kitchen? Is he even a jerkface in the kitchen? Sometimes. Is it about how food rationing and cultural isolation suffocated Berlin’s food scene? Is it about the redemption of Raue through cooking? Or is it about how brilliant he is for using Southeast Asian spices? It’s anybody’s guess but the result is rather aimless and meh.
It was during these moments of boredom that the idea began to occur to me that perhaps Chef’s Table has transcended itself. The stories have outstripped the form. The tension of Raue’s narrative is of holding the pain of his youth, the pain he inflicted on others as a hoodlum and the pain (and pleasure) he gives now as a chef in one’s mind at once. It is about how we build ego around us as protection and how then those guns turn inwards to torture us. Vanity food shots, Goodfella-sian tracking shots through the kitchen, colonialist food aping masked as culinary genius just pollute that story.
The beauty of Orkin’s story is of finding one’s home, no matter how unlikely its coordinates, and of finding one’s way back from tragedy. In both of these cases, as in a handful of examples from previous seasons, the shoehorning of these stories into the language of Chef’s Table does neither the series nor the story a service. What if Chef’s Table transformed itself into a series of documentaries, like 30 For 30, each of which had the formal freedom to tailor the format and storytelling devices to the subject at hand? After all, the best of the chefs featured in the series are those who are open to their world, those who are unafraid to break with tradition, those who will do anything to let the true stories of their cuisine shine through. It’s about time for the makers of the series to take inspiration from their subjects — clear the table and set it anew.