On a gray Friday in Los Angeles last December, the stage of The Final Table was covered in a sweeping digital mural depicting a storybook illustration of the heavens, complete with clouds, moons, and a constellation of stars. Nine culinary titans — including chefs Grant Achatz, Clare Smyth, and Enrique Olvera — ceremoniously walked across a raised platform in the center of the stage, paused for impact, and descended down to the kitchen below, where four chefs were about to cook their hearts out. Once a clock started running, Andrew Knowlton — editor-at-large of Bon Appetit — bounced from station to station, asking the chefs about each dish as they sweated over the stoves, and the others watched from the sidelines. When the time was up, the chefs dropped their utensils.
This tense, but carefully orchestrated pageant was just the warm-up to the defining moment of a season finale: The Avengers-like supergroup of titans, after tasting the four competitors’ dishes, would determine which of the four competing chefs would be joining them at the “Final Table.” It’s a prize that involves no cash payouts but could change the winner’s career forever, especially if the show is a big hit.
The Final Table represents the next stage in Netflix’s quest to conquer every corner of the entertainment kingdom: The media company is now charging full steam ahead at the culinary competition show, one of the most popular — yet stagnant — TV formats. On November 20, audiences will finally get to see Netflix’s attempt at reimagining the genre: the 10-episode series pits 24 acclaimed chefs against each other in a grand challenge overseen by nine of the world’s kitchen masters. If the series, which like most Netflix shows, will drop an entire season all at once, succeeds at its mission to become a global culinary spectacle, The Final Table could make shows like Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Chopped — all on the air for more than a decade — seem irrelevant. In a best-case scenario, it could become one of Netflix’s tentpole series, right up there with Chef’s Table, Stranger Things, and House of Cards.
The Final Table’s premiere will mark the end of Netflix’s impressive, year-long ramp-up of food-themed series. Since January 2018, the Hollywood maverick has deployed an array of shows that flip the script on representation and storytelling in food media. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious lead the charge last winter, along with the massively popular reboot of Queer Eye, the delightful game show Nailed It!, the scorching food corruption documentary series Rotten, and the family-friendly travel show Somebody Feed Phil. The summer brought the lighthearted baking challenge Sugar Rush and the lightheaded marijuana cookery antics of Cooking on High. And fall saw the launch of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a true game-changer in the realm of food TV, and the irresistible oddity The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell. It was a major directional shift from a company that previously produced only two hits in the food-entertainment space: David Gelb’s genre-defining docuseries Chef’s Table, which debuted in 2015, and Michael Pollan’s less popular, but still well-regarded four-part series Cooked, from 2016.
“When Netflix came to us and said, ‘Bring us a cooking show that you’ve never seen before,’ obviously, that’s a really tall order,” said veteran TV producer Yasmin Shackleton, who created The Final Table along with her colleague Robin Ashbrook. Both producers worked on several reality shows, including Gordon Ramsay’s hit series MasterChef. Ashbrook says that he and Shackleton talked about the impact of Chef’s Table and the existing framework of shows like MasterChef, and asked themselves, “How do we make it feel more like a movie?” The answer, to their eyes at least, was to assemble the best possible group of contestants and judges — a process that involved conversations with critics and food writers around the world — and employ production techniques that had never been used on cooking shows before.
“We have these cameras that you normally see on the side of football fields that race up and down, and we literally slung them on the ceiling and used them to shoot beautiful overhead shots, which is kind of like a signature look of the show,” Shackleton said. ”We’re just trying to push everything and create a visual feast.”
“It would be factually correct to say, that in terms of the size and the scale,” Ashbrook said, “it is the biggest culinary show in a studio that has ever been made.”
The Final Table was filmed at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City, California, the same lot where many of the Men in Black and Spider-Man films were shot. Its massive stage is lined with floor-to-ceiling image-projecting LED screens. Massive, gleaming workstations dot the stage, with enough space between them for the competitors to feel as if they are in their own isolated kitchens. A cavernous illuminated walk-in pantry is set in the center, looking something like a hyper-artisanal 7-Eleven, stocked with the world’s best produce.
But during that December taping, it’s a curtained-off corner that functioned as the Final Table green room. After sampling the final dishes, the chef-judges lounged backstage with robes pulled around their chef’s whites, to avoid potential spills from any foods or beverages consumed during their downtime. Some chefs ate meals from aluminum take-out containers ushered in by production assistants, others looked at their phones, and a few chatted casually with their on-set translators.
When it came to casting the chef-judges, the producers picked icons who are closely identified with their countries’ respective cuisines, but also exhibit their own distinct personal styles. Anne-Sophie Pic brings a mastery of both classic and modern French techniques, while Enrique Olvera has a deep understanding of Mexico’s essential and ancient flavors. British phenom Clare Smyth and Brazilian star Helena Rizzo are injecting new energy into fine dining, while American heavyweight Grant Achatz, Spanish award-winner Andoni Aduriz, and Italian master Carlo Cracco are pioneers in the realm of modernist cuisine. Indian celebrity chef Vineet Bhatia and Japanese all-star Yoshihiro Narisawa are both renowned for serving progressive versions of their homelands’ foods, although the former does so at a group of dining rooms scattered across the globe, while the latter works at just one eponymous restaurant in Tokyo.
“With nine judges, that means so many different ways of cooking and creating,” said Pic, who almost never appears on television. “I made a choice, before, to really concentrate on the kitchen,” she remarked while sitting on a sofa in in the chef’s lounge, but noted that the opportunity seemed like the rare opportunity to do a big show without completely disrupting her work life.
Perched in a canvas director’s chair, in front a monitor showing the set change, Achatz looked calm and contemplative. He was drawn to the program because of the caliber of chefs involved — some of whom are old friends of his — and because he thought that “there was an opportunity that hasn’t really been fully explored with competition cooking shows.” The Alinea chef said he also wanted to reach young people considering careers in the culinary arts. “I find it very important to try to convey that if you’re going to be successful and have a meaningful career in this industry, you need to have patience, you need to devote yourself to it, you need to dedicate, you need to have passion,” he explained. “It’s not just, boom, go to culinary school and become Thomas Keller. It doesn’t work like that, you have to put in your time. So that was a big part of it, too.”
The chefs competing on the other side of the stage have definitely put in their Malcolm Gladwell hours. American gourmands may know French Laundry veteran Timothy Hollingsworth as the chef/owner of Otium in LA. Monique Fiso is currently turning heads in New Zealand with her modern interpretations of Maori food. Ash Heeger is earning accolades for her nose-to-tail cuisine at ASH restaurant in Cape Town. And Shane Osborn runs Arcane, one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed fusion restaurants. Shackleton is particularly thrilled about his participation. “I tried to get him on [MasterChef UK] and he would never come on that show, because he didn’t want to do TV,” the producer said. “So for me personally, when Shane Osborn was even considering it, I was like, ‘Holy moly this is big.’”
For Smyth, The Final Table was an opportunity that she couldn’t pass up, even though the timing — just a few weeks after the opening of her hotly-anticipated London restaurant Core — was less than ideal. “I just think that Netflix makes incredible shows,” she said in the makeshift green room. “Obviously, being among this bunch of people is phenomenal. They’re a huge inspiration to me.”
Beyond working with other talented chefs, Rizzo saw The Final Table as an opportunity to “talk a little bit about [Brazil’s] food and ingredients,” and help introduce her country’s cuisine to a greater audience. Although the chef had done some TV work in her home country before signing on, she was still surprised by the scope of the production. “It’s a different way to do it,” Rizzo said in between bites of salad and rare prime rib backstage. “It’s very big here.”
Regardless of the scale and the big names involved, the success of The Final Table might ultimately depend on whether or not viewers like the show’s tone: A frenetic trailer released last month emphasized the competition’s intensity. If the show exudes a similarly brooding vibe, it might have a harder time building an audience than series like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Ugly Delicious, which, despite their different personalities, share two major traits in common: They depict chefs as disciplined, but approachable artists, and they empower viewers by helping them understand how great food gets made. Those are the same reasons why Chef’s Table, despite its over-the-top montages set to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” manages to appeal to reach such a wide audience, and why people are always hungry for more episodes of Netflix’s UK import The Great British Baking Show.
One promising sign for viewers who prefer Ugly Delicious to Chopped is that all of The Final Table’s creators and stars seem genuinely enthused about the show’s emphasis on craft and creativity. Ashbrook pitches the show as “undeniably a celebration of the craft of food,” while also pointing out that there is no material prize for winning — no cash windfall or trips or cars or fancy kitchen equipment furnished by any sponsors.
In terms of action, Ashbrook and Shackleton baked a major twist into the gameplay that is guaranteed to raise the stakes in the finale: After working together in the nine country-themed challenges, the two winning pairs will break apart and cook against each other. The judgement of this last cook-off proved to be appropriately challenging for the members of the big nine. “I won’t name names, but there was a chef out there whose food tasted the best, but it wasn’t necessarily adventurous or boundary pushing,” Achatz remarked in the green room. After considering his own culinary philosophy, and the perspectives of his fellow judges, Achatz concluded, “I always prioritize flavor, even over pushing boundaries, but it’s a bit of a debate right now, what we’re going to do.”
Flavor is intangible to the viewers at home, but they can appreciate the inspiration behind these dishes, the drive of the chefs, and the skills with which they execute their own gastronomic visions. “It’s about culinary arts,” Smyth said backstage. “It’s about that thing of being proud to be a chef, and the amount of work and effort that goes into it, and also people being original and believing in themselves.“
Greg Morabito is Eater’s pop culture editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus