After winning tons of awards, spawning a hit spinoff, and generally changing the look and feel of food TV, it was about time for Netflix’s series Chef’s Table to receive the full-blown parody treatment — and comedian/writer Rekha Shankar was up for the challenge. Her new six-part series for College Humor’s Dropout channel, Gods of Food, lampoons the world of ultra-serious chefs and the gourmands who flock to their restaurants. Shankar and her team nail the aesthetic of the original show while riffing on some of the major themes that bubble up throughout Chef’s Table — particularly the ideas about authenticity versus innovation, and the egos that drive both chefs and the diners who obsess over their food. Each episode also features hilarious cameos from real-world chefs — including Hugh Acheson, Jet Tila, and Alison Roman — playing versions of themselves.
Earlier this summer, Eater hopped on the phone with Shankar to discuss the inspiration behind this series, the challenges of parodying Chef’s Table, and the relationship between food and comedy.
Why did you decide to do a Chef’s Table parody?
Rekha Shankar: I’m a huge food show fan. I watch all the baking and cooking shows, and my job as a comedy writer is to come up with ideas for long-form shows. A co-worker of mine hates this kind of pretentious food stuff, and we were just kind of chatting about it, and we came up with this idea of, “What if we did a satirical take on Chef’s Table?” Because I love Chef’s Table, and I also hate it. He had never seen it, and hates it all. He eventually had to drop off the project, so it kind of just became mine, and I thought, “Okay, I have watched these shows for a long time and have often had problems with, like: Why does the chef just get to be super mean? Why does Dan Barber just get to yell at all of his employees about asparagus?” I thought it was pretty ripe for parody — it was almost just already there.
You know, I do love all these shows too, and I love some of the things that they have to say about creating something from nothing and really innovating in a space where it feels like everything’s already happened. So trying to marry those two things was what the development process was like. Okay, we can make fun of molecular gastronomy. But what is the real heart of someone who’s like, “I want to futz with molecular gastronomy”? It’s, “Oh, I want to make something that impresses you.” And with somebody who’s steeped in tradition, what kind of chef would that be like? It’s, “Oh, yeah, you have all these beautiful traditional recipes, but you also can never innovate.”
What’s interesting through the series is exploring the hypocrisies that lie within the chef’s world of “new and different is good” or “old and traditional is best,” and just kind of making fun of it.
What were the challenges of turning that into a comedy show?
One of the challenges, weirdly, was that some of it seemed too real. For the molecular gastronomy episode, with some of the ideas that we were pitching, it was like, “Actually, someone did make something like that.” And I thought, ”Oh, that sounds crazy to me. Why would anyone eat that? But somebody did that. Okay, I have to go even farther.”
What are your thoughts on the influence of Chef’s Table on food TV and food culture in general? Did you see it as emblematic of some greater trend, or was it just a fixation that you wanted to parody?
I think the first season had a lot of problems that they then fixed in the second season. Like in the first season, they covered mostly white men and one Asian woman, and that was very apparent to me when watching it, like, “Oh this show isn’t for me — let’s exalt these angry white men who got their way.” But then in the second season, they’re talking about something that legitimately is really interesting to me: Gaggan Anand is an Indian chef, and I’m Indian American. He talks about how “Indian food is considered comfort food,” and it’s the same with the Mexican chef that season, [Enrique Olvera]. Mexican food is considered comfort food. Why can’t it be elevated to fine dining status? Why will people pay for French food that costs $50, but they won’t do that for Mexican food?
I thought that is a great use of this tool. You’re exalting this foods that people wouldn’t think can be fine dining. I found that to be really influential in terms of hoisting up people who may not be considered chefs if you were to just look at Michelin star ratings, but in their own communities are really excellent at giving new and unique food experiences.
In that way, I think it was beautifully influential and probably did spawn a lot of these “food beauty” shows, as opposed to just food competitions.
My guess is that the Chef’s Table creators expanding their purview would also be good for your team, as satirists, because you now have more material to draw from. Was that the case?
Completely. Something I am happy with in our season is that four of our chefs are women — they’re all women of color — and then we have two white dude chefs. One of the most iconic episodes of Chef’s Table is the episode about Jeong Kwan, the Korean nun, and we have a Korean nun episode as a result, because It was so iconic. We thought it would be fun to play off [this idea] of how this woman cooks food at a temple, and it’s cool that her food is really good, but what if she was like, “Hey I’m not a chef. Can you please stop following me and eating all my food? I know it’s free, but it’s for poor people and Buddhists at the temple, it’s not for you.”
So in this episode, you’re more satirizing the “Chef’s Table effect” than the chef herself?
One hundred percent. She burns all her awards and she’s like, “Please stop coming here. None of you care about Buddhism. You’re wasting my time. And I have to cook so much more food now.” It really does expand on that. There is something to satirize in all of them — whether it’s us as a culinary audience or the personality of the chefs themselves or the exact types of food they’re trying to sell.
Aside from making people laugh about this culture, do you have any further hopes for this series? Do you want to change people’s perspectives on the food world at all?
It would be cool if people saw these tropes in this show as a mirror [and thought], “Oh, I guess we don’t have to be so fucking rude in the kitchen.” Or, “Are we exoticizing the Korean nun chef for our own Western healing ideas about what food in the East is like?” It would be cool to kind of call attention to those tropes, and make someone think differently about food — the way Chef’s Table, the Great British Baking Show, and all those cooking shows have done for me.
It would be cool through comedy to make people think differently about the food world.
The first two episodes of Gods of Food are now available on Dropout, and new episodes will be available each Thursday through September 13.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.