A Phenomenal Gem Buried Beneath a Mountain of Choices on Netflix
Like many, I see a future in which the content we now loosely associate under the umbrella of “television” is utterly devoid of network association. That goes for both the traditional model and the online one as well. Everyone thinks they want this model, as it ideally empowers viewers to have a one-stop shop for anything they could want. But when you can have EVERYTHING, how would you be able to start ANYWHERE? At what point does the overwhelming amount of choice become paralyzing? What’s the best way to understand where to even begin? And once you know that, where do you stop?
All of these questions are important for the theoretical framework I’ve created above, but also drive a lot of the chefs profiled in Netflix’s series Chef’s Table. It’s the kind of show I’d probably miss in this Future World Order of content, in which suggested shows are beamed onto my wall, Minority Report-style. But those shows would be beamed via some algorithm based on what I had already watched, rather than what I might enjoy. I started watching the first season of Chef’s Table well after it had premiered, back in the halcyon days in which Netflix wasn’t releasing so much weekly content that simply sifting through its new original programming didn’t require fifteen minutes. (You know those halcyon days I’m talking about, known better as “last Fall.”)
All of this is a way of saying that the circumstances under which I decided to throw on an episode of this show are diminishing daily, which makes it all the more remarkable that experiences like finding the most unlikely show about the cost of obsession can still happen as a relative fluke. That’s not the way this is supposed to be. TV critics used to be able to tell you a lot about every show. Then the job turned more towards curation, covering smaller swaths of television but in greater depth thanks to the increased quality of the format. Now, those same folks resemble contestants on Supermarket Sweep, manically trying to just keep up with the onslaught of content. The result is a fractured market in which choice is infinite and consensus is obliterated. That’s great for a personalized experience, and pretty terrible when you try to find someone at the same point on the same show as you.
Chef’s Table is in many ways about bucking against the “traditional ways of doing things,” and the connection between the chefs looking to challenge norms and the real-time dissolution of our collective ability to discuss television is only one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating. Each of the chefs depicted in this show have an almost supernatural way of conceiving and executing dishes that push the boundaries of what cuisine can do. They regularly plate dishes that belong in museums rather than restaurants. On a daily basis, they look at current assumptions about the dining experience, give those the middle finger, and make entire countries question why they accepted the old ways in the first place. Chef’s Table is a show about the power and terror of disruption.
It’s also about the power and terror of those terraforming the culinary landscape to their specifications. If each episode features someone who hit a wall in their career before realizing they had the power to raze it, it also features the costs of that demolition. If a chef talks about a significant other in their biographies, the odds are that significant other is no longer in the picture. If a chef has a child, there’s almost always the unspoken statement that the child will be alone for most of their formative years. The restaurant is the spouse, the child, the lover, the friend, the enemy, the inspiration, the oxygen. Everything else is secondary.
I started watching Chef’s Table because I really enjoy people who are really good at things that I suck at doing. And since I suck at most things, I enjoy a wide variety of artistic endeavors. I am not remotely a foodie in any way, shape, or form, and probably would not enjoy 90 percent of the dishes these chefs create, but I am in constant awe of the food on this show anyways. I was a theatre techie back in the day because I couldn’t sing, dance, or act, but still wanted to be part of that atmosphere. I watch This Old House even though the only screwdriver we had in the house growing up was a flat-headed knife. I watch shows about restoring old cars even though I can’t tell you what any of the blinking lights on my dashboard mean. I’m pretty sure one of them is telling me I’m low on gas, but the meanings of these symbols are probably lost to history, so who can say, really?
But what kept me going through episode after episode was not the absolutely insane ways these people kept making dishes (“What we found was by burying the yak in a four-foot deep pit made up of soils from these seven specific regions mentioned on an ancient treasure map, and then yelled certain sections of Gulliver’s Travels to it for a week, the caramelized beets suddenly paired much better with it”), but the consistent costs of the pursuit of perfection. That’s what transforms this show from “Food Network with better cinematography” to something narratively vital. It’s a stealth show ostensibly about famous cooks but really about what it means to have a singular drive that can drive everyone around you either crazy or simply away.
There’s something profoundly uplifting and sad about each episode. All of them center around a person who brings enormous satisfaction to strangers and utter strife to those closest. It takes the idea of the genius savant and specifies it, asking what the ideal actually looks like in execution. No two chefs are the same, but after several seasons, it’s easy to identify certain traits that all possess to varying degrees and forms. Most locked onto food as a primary source of interest/pleasure at an early age. Most excelled in little else before that, and often produced little hope in their families that they would amount to anything. Most used “traditional” career paths before breaking the mold. Most found initial failure while breaking the mold, with a public not ready for their method of genius. Most have a work ethic so breathtaking that it makes you feel as if you’re wasting their oxygen through your own inaction. Most are eventually vindicated as the world catches up to their vision but still feel as if they are misunderstood, with great successes inevitably followed with an asterisk.
And most importantly, most of them are always surrounded by people but also totally alone.
That’s what makes the season three finale, featuring Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, so unexpected and so perfect as a capper to all that’s come before. It’s one of the first times I’ve finished an episode and not been haunted by the post-credits life of the person with whom I’ve spent the previous hour. It reminds me very much of the Documentary Now episode “Juan Loves Chicken And Rice,” itself a parody of the film documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, itself the film that serves as the spiritual predecessor to Chef’s Table. (The similarities are intentional: Jiro director David Gelb is the creator of Chef’s Table.) “Juan Loves Chicken And Rice” was one of the best episodes of TV in 2016, primarily because it took the inherent tension of Chef’s Table and managed to release it, not unlike how a piece of great music can evoke the same emotional response. The Martinez episode suggests a path towards harmony rather than dissonance, and manages to serve as a finale in which multiple unconnected episodes (and even seasons) suddenly seem to have been leading to this figure.
It’s the kind of cathartic moment that I didn’t know was possible from a show I only accidentally realized even existed, and it feels like one of the great moments in the last gasp of a truly connected viewing audience. It suggests a way forward together at a moment in which we’re splintering off from each other with increasing speed. It’s not a show about cooking. It’s a show about the difficulty, but ultimate importance, of nourishing one another.