Welcome to the first Friday afternoon of 2019. Last year was a great one for food TV, and I remain optimistic about the 12 months of culinary-themed entertainment ahead of us. To get the ball rolling, here are recommendations for three new things to watch this weekend: two terrific restaurant-themed documentaries, and a hilarious comedy special that’s loaded with food jokes.
How the ‘best restaurant in the world’ stays on top
When placing a plate on the table, the servers at Eleven Madison Park in New York City must lay the china in such a way that if a diner flips it over to examine the backside, the restaurant’s logo will appear right side-up. The restaurant’s co-owner, Will Guidara, knows that most customers probably won’t do this, and yet he makes sure that this is one of the many details his staff must keep in mind during service, because, according to the restaurateur, “it means that when we are putting plates down, we are doing it with more intention.”
The Eleven Madison Park episode of Netflix’s 7 Days Out, a docuseries chronicling the launch of “six iconic events,” is full of such insights into the operations of the lauded restaurant. Over the course of this nearly hour-long installment of the show (each episode is fully dedicated to one event), you see Guidara and chef Daniel Humm — both good-natured, but exacting bosses — guide their staff through the renovation and reopening of their Manhattan fine dining destination just a few months after it landed at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. That accolade clearly looms large on Guidara’s mind throughout the revamp. “So what’s at stake?” he asks himself early in the doc. “Yeah, I guess, everything.”
The truth is that the 2017 revamp actually wasn’t all that risky: the orientation of the dining room changed a bit, some cosmetic flourishes were added, the kitchen got flashy new equipment, and Humm and his team introduced a handful of new and improved dishes. But the fundamental essence of EMP — the co-mingling of haute farm-to-table cuisine, impossibly precise service, and a luxe cocktail party vibe — didn’t change that much.The stakes were certainly not as high as, say, a rocket launch or the Kentucky Derby, two other events chronicled in 7 Days Out. But the restaurant revamp saga still makes for a compelling hour of TV, because it offers a glimpse into Guidara and Humm’s cult of perfectionism.
During that week before the opening, the servers run through mock service, spooning imaginary sauce on non-existent entrees while rehearsing their “spiels” before a service manager, who then offers notes on both physical mannerisms and word choices at the table. Guidara finds the new mohair banquettes to be just a touch too scratchy upon arrival, so the staff steams and presses them before service. Humm brings the members of his brigade — all young, strapping lads — out jogging in company-branded running gear, and later takes them to a barber for a shave before opening night, because he believes that removing that facial scruff makes them “pay more attention.”
On the big night, literally minutes before the doors swing open, Guidara addresses his staff, telling them in one breath that “this is an extraordinarily exciting moment” and that “failure is not an option.” Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Humm says to his crew, “There are no compromises, there’s not cutting corners, there’s only perfect — and if it’s not, it’s not.” Later in the evening, when the dining room is full and buzzing, Guidara and Humm hug each other in the kitchen. The reopening was an immediate success, as it was always intended to be, and they are beaming with pride.
It’s hard to watch 7 Days Out and not wonder if this costly and complex revamp was really just a flashy way to drum up more public interest for a restaurant that had already enjoyed several years in the spotlight. In that regard, it’s not as interesting as say, The Restaurateur, the documentary about the original, much more chaotic opening of Eleven Madison Park at the hands of founder Danny Meyer (who makes a cameo in the Netflix documentary) 20 years ago. But no matter how you feel about the revamp, this new documentary is still a fascinating look at the chef and restaurateur who continue to run one of the hottest restaurants in the world.
All six episodes of 7 Days Out are now streaming on Netflix.
Streaming recommendations du jour
The Migrant Kitchen, “Mister Jiu’s Chinatown”
Watch it on: KCET
The gist: As the title implies, this recent episode of KCET’s excellent culinary docuseries explores the connection between Brandon Jew’s celebrated San Francisco restaurant Mr. Jiu’s and the local Chinese-American community. The camera moves from the kitchen, where Jew and pastry chef Melissa Chow talk about their upbringing, across the street to the Wok Shop, where Tane Chan has spent the last several decades peddling kitchen tools to San Francisco’s best chefs. Bar manager Danny Louie also recalls the sights and sounds of growing up in SF Chinatown, while purveyors Kellee Matsushita-Tseng and Scott Chang-Fleeman explain their mission to grow Chinese vegetables using contemporary organic farming methods.
Jew and his colleagues are clearly respectful of the neighborhood but also seek to create something fresh and new inspired by their surroundings. “These cross-cultural exchanges are the basis for how food evolves,” the chef says early in the episode. “I feel like what we’re seeing in this next wave of this generation of American cooks is this newfound confidence in valuing our traditions and its impact on the food culture in America.”
Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable
Watch it on: Netflix
The gist: There are approximately five million stand-up specials on Netflix from comedians both young and old, but few of them can hold a candle to this new set from one of the O.G.s of observational comedy, Ellen DeGeneres. Some of the best bits in this excellent special are about food and dining, covering everything from waiters who don’t write down your order (“I’m filled with anxiety”) to people who are shocked by vegan diets (“Why do you care where I get my protein?”). Ellen sprinkles some personal anecdotes throughout — turns out she actually hated the dance breaks on her talk show — and the set ends with a bit of pop philosophy, but most of the special is devoted to hilarious setups and punchlines.
In other entertainment news…
- After sparking a national conversation about cultural appropriationvia the opening of his offensive, theme park-y restaurant Lucky Cricket, Andrew Zimmern raised eyebrows again this week by consuming a crawfish — head, tail, shell, and all — on his new show the Zimmern List.
- Cookbook legend and newly-minted sitcom star Madhur Jaffrey is still getting the hang of the LA dining scene, but at least she has discovered the utilitarian charms of poke bowls.
- Judging by the trailer, the second season of Netflix’s rom-com series Friends From College will feature a lot of drinking and perhaps some dining.
- Chrissy Teigen and John Legend dined at spaceship restaurantVespertine on his birthday last week.
- Little Italy was the worst food movie of 2018 for reasons that you may not have expected (spoiler: racism!).
- KFC is jumping on the Bird Box meme bandwagon.
- Padma Lakshmi gave Vulture a tour of her favorite restaurants and markets in Queens, New York, where she grew up.
- And finally, Prue Leith loves giving leftover Great British Baking Show goodies to the pigs next door.
Have a great weekend everyone, and if you’re looking for something to cook, consider making the buttermilk chicken from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. That great recipe, and several others from Samin Nosrat’s hit Netflix show, are available on the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat homepage.