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‘The Final Table’ Is a TV Spectacle That Shows Room for Improvement

Streaming recommendations for the weekend, plus a roundup of the week’s food-entertainment news

Timothy Hollingsworth and Darren MacLean

This post originally appeared on November 30, 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Welcome back to Friday afternoon. I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving break that was full of delightful carbohydrates of all shapes and sizes. I’ve got a few ideas for what to watch this weekend — two of them holiday-themed — plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news. Up first: some notes on a big new competition show.

How ‘The Final Table’ falls short of its promise

Adam Rose/Netflix

With a cast of acclaimed chefs from around the world, a state-of-the-art kitchen stadium for them to cook in, and a team of seasoned TV producers behind the camera, Netflix’s series The Final Table seemed poised to change the cooking competition show genre forever. After watching all 10 hours of this cooking show behemoth, I’m here to report that The Final Table… doesn’t quite meet those sky-high expectations, but it’s still a very entertaining spectacle, and a series that shows a lot of potential for growth if it gets a second season.

First, the good news: Every culinary competition show lives or dies by its chefs, and this one has a particularly strong cast. It’s a good mix of well-established, award-winning chefs and up-and-comers whose talents are apparent in every dish that they plate. The caliber of the contestants is so high, in fact, that the elimination rounds in each episode — where the bottom three teams must cook to stay in the game — are oftentimes where the most exciting dishes are served. Even the losers on The Final Table are more talented than the winners of other culinary competition shows, it seems.

The Final Table also sets itself apart from the rest of the food show flock by focusing on haute cuisine over comfort food. The majority of the dishes look like they could be part of some 20+ course tasting menu served at a vaunted fine dining destination. Sometimes these iterations of regional staples are silly exercises in deconstruction, but more often than not, they showcase the chefs’ abilities to reinterpret dishes without compromising their integrity. Many of the plates really do look like they’re ripped from a montage at the end of a Chef’s Table episode. And the show’s country-by-country theme also seems to bring out the chefs’ creativity: Each challenge features at least a few interesting cross-cultural mashups.

Where The Final Table stumbles, unfortunately, is in its pacing during the early episodes. With 24 chefs working in teams of two during the first challenge, there are a lot of introductions to make and generally too much to focus on. Once the pack gets thinned out a bit, and the dust settles, it becomes much easier to get absorbed in the action and start picking your favorite teams to root for. But perhaps the greatest problem (warning: here be spoilers) is how the competition shakes down during the second half of the series, especially if you’re someone (like me) who yearns to see more diversity and gender parity on food TV shows.

The last four episodes feature all men cooking, and the grand finale stars four white guys — two from Australia, two from North America. No doubt, these four chefs are extremely talented and cook their hearts out for that seat at The Final Table. But for a show that’s pitched as a global culinary competition, you’d hope that the last match would feature more people who represent the show’s diverse, worldwide audience. In a similar vein, the casting of the ambassadors for the “America” episode were also all male, and all white: New York Times food editor Sam Sifton, actor Dax Shepard, and actor Colin Hanks. They’re all fun, affable dudes, but is this really who we want representing the melting pot that is America?

As someone who loves watching how fine dining dishes come together, and learning about new culinary talents from around the world, I enjoyed the first season of The Final Table. But if (and when) the show gets renewed, I hope the producers will rethink their casting process, and how to tweak the show so that it feels more inclusive from start to finish.

Streaming recommendations du jour

Paul Drinkwater/NBC

A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy

Watch it on: Hulu

The gist: Hollywood’s coolest couple hosts a holiday special full of their family and famous friends. In a surprising twist, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen decided to go full sitcom by filming the whole thing on a Full House-style set with a laugh track. The musical numbers slightly outwear their welcome, and some of the celebrity bits are too brief. But there are some amusing moments scattered throughout, most notably a bit where Awkwafina stops by to show off the pad thai carbonara that she made using Teigen’s book Cravings: Hungry for More, with some adjustments to the recipe that shock and surprise John and Chrissy. The Fab Five from Queer Eye also make a fun cameo, FaceTiming with John and Chrissy’s toddler, Luna.

Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics, “Thanksgiving Sides”

Watch it on: Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play

The gist: Thanksgiving has come and gone, but the side dishes that Ina prepares in this episode — savory bread pudding, sprouts, and three kinds of mashed potatoes — live on. All of them are great to keep in mind for any holiday gatherings or generally splurge-tastic meals that you have planned for the coming months. As a special holiday bonus, Garten also invites three of her famous friends to show off their favorite side dishes: Marcus Samuelsson makes collard greens, Nigella Lawson prepares a spicy cabbage slaw, and Jennifer Garner reveals her family’s recipe for sweet potato pudding.

In other entertainment news…

  • Nailed It! returns next Friday with a holiday season featuring funny people Jason Mantzoukas, Lauren Lapkus, and Ron Funches judging the cake fails alongside hosts Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres. This is one of several food-themed yuletide specials coming down the TV pipeline.
  • On Thanksgiving Day, David Chang’s mom announced that a new season of Ugly Delicious was in the works. No word yet on when the new episodes will land on Netflix.
  • Cronut creator Dominique Ansel is teaching one of those online MasterClass seminars (but he will not show you how to make a Cronut).
  • Writer George Reynolds looks at why the rich gourmands of Billionsand Succession love eating ortolans, the tiny songbirds with a dark culinary past.
  • On the Tonight Show this week, Ice-T explained why he’d never tried a bagel before shooting a recent episode of Law & Order: “I’m from South Central. Can you imagine Snoop singing, ‘Rolling down the street smokin’ indo eating some lox and bagels?’”
  • And finally, writer Lauren Bachelis and This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia are developing a TV show for NBC based on David Sax’s excellent book Save the Deli. According to Deadline, the show would focus on “a 30-year-old woman, who much to the shock of her family, friends and mostly herself, becomes the new owner of her Chicago family deli after her grandfather dies.”

Have a great weekend everyone. And if you’re looking for a baking challenge, consider making the rugelach from Manhattan’s acclaimed Breads Bakery using this recipe.