Dan Barber in his Chef’s Table Trailer
Tonight, after a long day of reading articles while pretending to get work done, you make dinner, a dish you dub “Almost Rotted Swiss Chard and Random Root Vegetable Frittata.” Perhaps a few kids of yours will scarf down a portion or, just as likely, you eat alone at a decrepit wooden table, empty but for some parched flowers in an Ikea mug you use as a vase on more refined evenings. You throw on some Netflix, maybe an episode of Chef’s Table, and the camera zooms in on “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River” at Osteria Francescana some hundreds or thousands of kilometers away in charming Modena. Drool over the dish of eel lacquered with saba and Amarone—cooked grape syrup and dry red wine, respectively, from Emilia-Romagna and Veneto—cream of polenta, Campanine apple jelly, and burned onion powder, gleaming and vivid to a glorious Vivaldi soundtrack. This plate is but one manifestation of the modernist culinary prowess of chef Massimo Bottura, who, it turns out, conjured the course as an edible allusion to the sixteenth-century exile of the Este family; the eel swims upstream along these Dukes’ path from the lagoons of Comacchio to the canals of Modena via the Po, collecting idiosyncratic ingredients along the way. Now, have another bite of your frittata.
The brainchild of David Gelb, Chef’s Table is something of a follow-up to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, his 2011 directorial debut about the eponymous demigod of immaculate fish and rice preparation. For his part, octogenarian Jiro Ono serves twenty courses of monastic simplicity in his 10-seat restaurant below the Tokyo noise, a premise so mythological it smacks of nearly sarcastic artifice. And yet, paired with a droning Philip Glass piano soundtrack and a scientific obsession with close-ups, it works—that is, we somehow put aside our cynicism for long enough to sympathize with, for instance, an emasculated fiftysomething crying over an omelette.
This is a universe wholly other from that evening frittata, where an octopus—an animal that, as Ben Lerner puts it in his novel 10:04, “decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play”—is literally massaged to death for an hour for human consumption. The novel’s narrator notes that octopi “can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate information into a larger picture, cannot read the realistic fiction the world appears to be,” and so it is with our passionate, obsessive, driven, and quite often, severely egotistical chefs. Like most television shows, Chef’s Table is a surreal series of narratives not at all integrated in our daily goings-on. It paints chefs as singular heroes of a “realistic fiction,” cartoons with comic-book origin stories, mythical artisans of some edible stuff apart from 99.999% of our lifetime experience of eating.
Now four seasons in, Gelb’s Chef’s Table has a firm grasp on the reins of highbrow food porn with meaning—relatable gastro-pornography, if you will—as the archetype of dramatized chef story set to a ridiculous amount of Vivaldi. A bastard descendant of Julia Child cooking shows and BBC’s gorgeous documentary Planet Earth, it circumvents the cooking process altogether, focusing instead on the trials and tribulations of its mostly well-renowned and decorated chefs, commanders-in-chief in the struggle to turn food processing into an efficacious ideological pursuit. Over the course of each 50-minute episode, we follow one chef through his/her life, both figuratively and literally: stylish shots of the backs of our protagonists pacing the kitchen are interspersed with biographical exposés and the opinions of a few relevant talking heads. Naturally, through 22 episodes on 22 chefs, this degree of drama is dazing. After all, what the show celebrates, at a base level, is chefs doing their best to assign a greater function—be it environmental, artistic, spiritual, or otherwise—to the process of preparing food for consumption, often exclusively for the ultra-wealthy.
The chefs in the series are sometimes goldmines of drama and struggle, to be sure, but often the narratives of their daily lives are heightened to operatic levels with violin crescendos and mystical camerawork. You might ask, What does a chef really do? and find absolutely no answer in the cloudy narcissism of, say, Tim Raue, whose restaurant “is the heartbeat of my life. Everything is like I want it. Every detail, every glass, every dish—it is me. I create my own universe.” By this logic, cooking is no more than self-aggrandizement, and at its worst, Chef’s Table confirms this theory. Family and health issues, harsh critics, Eurocentrism, conflicting personalities, even the basic responsibilities of adulthood—these are, according to the series, impediments that, in proper storytelling fashion, often act as rungs on the ladder to greatness.
Take the episode on Grant Achatz, for instance, whose Chicago restaurant Alinea is a trailblazer in molecular gastronomy. Back in 2007, just as Alinea was hitting its stride, Achatz was diagnosed with carcinoma of the mouth and lacked, at least for a while, the ability to taste. A few years later, Alinea was given three Michelin stars and ranked sixth on S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list, two accolades we are meant to believe are the entire point of cooking. This problem is undeniably severe and inherently poetic, but seems more an unfortunate blip on the steady, studied arc of a driven, egotistical savant than any life-altering pivot. Presumably, the diagnosis and healing process did profoundly affect Achatz on a deeply personal level, but how far does that go in the kitchen? Does the close-up of his dish “Pillow of Nutmeg Air” really sing of a cancer struggle? Maybe his work ethic, talent, and/or brash confidence have more to do with his success (“Rules? There are no rules,” he says, without a hint of self-consciousness).
Ubiquitous to all things culinary in the foodie age seems to be some sort of backstory. We opt for heritage breeds of rice, fermented drinks that date thousands of years to Siberia, cheeses made by the Von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame, or simply just vegetables from hardworking local farmers. This is without a doubt a very good thing, a response to the industrialization of food detailed in the likes of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, progenitor of the current movement. But the extension of this merger of food and storytelling into chef culture is a curious one, since viewers ostensibly never taste the food they see, and likely have no idea where to even begin in recreating it in their home kitchens.
Of course, to posit that sustenance—even of a particularly source-conscious sort—is anything comparable to “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River” is not only ludicrous, it also cheapens innovation and boundary-pushing across disciplines—akin, perhaps, to the museum-goer who complains that his/her five-year-old could have painted a Rothko. Unlike painting, however, the stuff of highbrow food porn does coincide with an act we well-fed folk perform daily. Still, you could argue that eating a home-cooked frittata has about as much in common with dining at Osteria Francescana as staring at a wall does with ogling that Rothko.
The fetishization of cooking as art is, historically speaking, a very new phenomenon, at least compared with that apocryphal first barbecue, the establishment of Neolithic civilization, biblical spelt and wheat, spice trades and slavery-driven mass agriculture and banana conquistadors and the worldwide consumption of Andean potatoes, Chinese tea, and whatever the hell Cheetos are. Indeed, cooking as an art depends on the fruition of all of these facets of agriculture and globalization; in an increasingly Westernized world of plenty, information and variety are ever more available, and as Charles Eames put it, “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.” Surely no one ever ate Parmigiano foam on an emaciated stomach.
We need not look far into the past to see the correlation that, for example, cooking shows at large have with greater societal trends—namely, at the midcentury advent of the cooking show, industrial agriculture was burgeoning, food less scarce; we collectively forgot how to cook, or at least stopped caring. Enter Julia Child, who took the haute cuisine of cultured restaurant fare to families in their homes, her tears of culinary joy proof of the DIY magic of cooking. Her shows were explanatory, supplements to her bestselling cookbooks, and demythologized the ethereal processes of turning a pile of onions into fragrant soup. This breed of chef, personable and professorial, became by the end of the millennium a staple of Food Network programming. Like Child, Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, and Jamie Oliver are today well-known not for avant-garde or intellectually stimulating restaurants, but for accessibility.
Yes, there have been generations of chefs—quite often French men named Alain—famous within the esoteric fine dining world throughout the last century and beyond, but until the recent bloom of cooking docs like Gelb’s, these were not household names. That is, if you were not a chef and could not afford to eat at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, there would be no reason to know who Paul Bocuse was. Then Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential put chef life under the magnifying glass, with more on sex, drugs, and alcohol than julienning carrots, and the idea of badass chef was revealed to the world. Significantly, Bourdain’s cooking was not notable, nor was he in anyway trying to be intellectually successful like his Chef’s Table counterparts—what he represents is the self-invention of chef mythology, the chef’s whites as persona instead of work uniform.
Soon after, there was Top Chef and a horde of other competition shows, all of which flipped Child’s model for one well more evocative of character drama. As Jay Rayner writes in the Guardian, the series “wasn’t just about who did the most thrilling thing with sea urchin that week. It was about how they dealt with the pressure, who they swore at in the dorm rooms, and whether they washed enough.” Just a few biographical questions more and we land at the character-driven Chef’s Table, that food porn with meaning and no actual cooking. Chefs are now our mythical heroes, “our last genuine artisans,” as Rayner puts it.
While you eat your frittata and watch Chef’s Table, you are keenly aware of the difference between your quotidian experience of food and the life-affirming, absolute ecstasy of cuisine for say, chef Francis Mallmann. He, for one, claims “There’s nothing more sad than an overcooked fish;” his obsessive hedonism carries through to all parts of his family life in brash Hemingway style, as he globetrots, avoids commitment of any sort, and cooks large hunks of meat in rugged Patagonia. In an Eater review, Joshua David Stein rightly responds: “No, there’s nothing more sad than an overlooked boy.”
That passionate chefs must contain this hierarchy—cooking above all else—is exactly what Chef’s Table leads us to believe about our superheroes, and seems to be what we demand of the series in return by virtue of the fact that we happily watch. The dramatic Vivaldi, the close-ups, the pithy one-liners—the drama Gelb draws from his subjects is commendable, but if you back up and assess the genre at large, it comes across as notably flawed. Likewise, it is easy to mock; a number of fantastic parodies point out the ridiculous premise of chef-obsessive, including a 22-minute number by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader called “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” in the style of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and a Chef’s Table parody in which a Queens chef serves garbage to bewildered critics sputtering random French words.
The Chef’s Table narrative is ultimately problematic, often obscuring the humanity of chefs for the sake of drama instead of elucidating their lackluster methods and desires. At its best, the series uses cooking as a vehicle within which to discuss some greater need beyond chefs’ self-aggrandizement. Thankfully, it seems to be heading in that direction, at least in part: the most recent season begins with a profile of Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun who prepares vegan meals at her monastery in South Korea. Kwan, in the dramatic few minutes reserved for the featured character at the end of every episode, pronounces herself quietly, the exact opposite of the egotism of so many other chefs. “I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom. I wish you a healthy, happy life. Thank you.” Savor that last bite.