I adore art, and I have a wide definition of what qualifies as art. I also face quite the conundrum. I have little patience for boasting, pretension, arrogance, and general entitlement (it’s why, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I really dislike reality television and avoid it at all costs). Why does a conundrum arise? Because when you peek behind the curtains more often then not you will find that behind great works of art, very unlikable artists can be found, or worse. We also live at a time when we know so much about the people that create the things we enjoy, which is hard for people like me who can’t always appreciate something if we strongly dislike the people producing the work. Roland Barthes is the person credited with coming up with the notion of death of the author when it comes to literary criticism. According to his ideas, the need to contextualize and look into motivations or any other information of the artist is unnecessary and in fact should be avoided. The work needs to be accepted as is and analyzed on its own merits regardless of the person behind the curtains. It’s easier to do this with figurative arts (paintings, sculptures, etc.) and pretend that Picasso or Pollock were not curmudgeons whose private lives were highly problematic. It’s also possible to apply these notions to writers – one can love Norman Mailer’s novels and try to forget that he tried to murder one of his wives by stabbing her twice. Movie directors and writers work behind the camera, so the job is made easier for the viewer. I am extremely conflicted by the fact that Woody Allen and Roman Polanski (just two examples) have either exhibited highly suspect behavior or flat out horrific crimes and yet have also produced works that I love. The work is harder for singers and actors because of the impossibility for them to completely hide in their art, so my dislike for Kanye West’s entitlement or Jennifer Lawrence and her everyone’s best friend schtick are harder to ignore. I am only human after all. That said, I do try to separate the person from the work.
Why this (too) long preamble? Because if anyone is arrogant, self-indulgent, pretentious and falsely self-loathing it’s chefs. The more successful they are the worse of a person they are. Throughout high school, college, and parts of grad school (and even a little post) I worked in various capacities of the restaurant industry. I started with fast food, I worked in country clubs, chains, privately owned restaurants, and bars. I’ve worked front of the kitchen (hosting, bussing, waiting, bartending) and in the back of the house as a prep and even a stint on the line. Creepy managers or owners, sexism, racism, and homophobia ran rampant regardless of the kitchen, but the biggest obstacle to a pleasant work environment was without a doubt the chef and his ego (I never worked for/with a female chef). Chefs believe that the world revolves around them and regardless of talent level or artistic merit they truly believe that their job is the hardest in the world. They are martyrs for their art, and what they produce is always art. Cue excessive eye rolling.
I love food, I love cuisine, and I do consider food an art. I own many cook books and even have a food blog in addition to this one. In spite of the luck I’ve had to live in some places around the world that are foodie meccas, my budget has always prevented me from accessing those kitchens considered elite. I have gotten close and have had a handful of spectacular meals on very special occasions. I have dined (for lunch because it’s cheaper) in restaurants by Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay. That said, food is the one thing that everyone, regardless of any other difference, has in common: we must all eat. How we eat and what we eat is when things get interesting, and if you possess an adventurous palate things can get really fun.
A handful of people around the world are not happy with just cooking or feeding, but want the diner to have an experience. Netflix’s chef-centered docuseries Chef’s Table over six hourlong episodes showcases one chef per outing and their innovations and artistic voice in the kitchen. The show’s title comes from a special table that certain high-end restaurants have that are either in the actual kitchen or adjacent to it and always reserved for special guests of the chef or an illustrious (read: high paying or famous) clientele. The name is appropriate because as viewers we are given direct access to the chef and all that happens behind the scenes, sometimes even the creative process. As I was expected each chef has quite the ego and delusions of grandeur that sometimes border on the ludicrous and ridiculous. To make up for it, though, is a healthy amount of food-porn that is as intoxicating as it is unreachable to the average person like me who cannot afford a $300+ tasting menu, without even mentioning the fact that some of the chefs and their restaurants happen to be located in far away locales somewhere halfway across the globe.
To avoid too much repetition, the show smartly focuses on six chefs that all have very singular points of view and utilize quite different cuisines. Also no location is repeated. The first episode showcases Massimo Bottura, in Modena, Italy and his quest to modernize the very traditional Italian cuisine. Episode two brings us to NYC and Dan Barber’s sustainable farm to table approach to cooking. Francis Mallmann follows, whose style is as rustic and uninhibited as the Argentinian Patagonian landscape he cooks in is remote and peaceful. The softspoken Niki Nakayama (the only female chef in the first season of the show) masks gigantic flavors behind minimalist Japanese cuisine in an unassuming Los Angeles location. Ben Shewry is a New Zealand chef transplanted in Melbourne, Australia and feels compelled to feed his clients foods that represent the indigenous flora and fauna that can only be found on the island continent. Lastly Magnus Nilsson cooks in the Swedish wilderness and showcases the largest varieties of style of cooking methods to whet the appetites of those brave enough to make it to his remote restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Some episodes are more enjoyable and compelling than others. As self aggrandizing as Massimo Bottura is he is also quite charming and the love story with his wife that is mirrored in his mission in the kitchen is a highlight of the show. Shewry is lacking in the personality category, which hurts overall his episode – a show is only as good as the person on screen, and he reads as boring which makes it hard to maintain interest. The visuals are stunning in all episodes though, and if you can make it through several ridiculous claims and high levels of entitlement, then beauty and phenomenal technique are to be found in heaps. Just don’t watch hungry, because you don’t want to watch someone whip up the most gorgeous scallop dish you’ve ever seen while munching on carrot sticks or popcorn, cuz that will just make your tastebuds sad, and nobody wants that!