I was reading over my review earlier this year of the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table and remembered how much I discussed my hatred of pretentiousness and arrogance, and how often these qualities are manifested in chefs and in restaurant culture. I discussed my own experience in the industry and how much arrogance especially bothers me. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this second season of the docuseries is even worse – the hubris is as strong as the plates are beautiful, and let me tell you, the plates are absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous. Nowhere else will you hear someone lament that a chef’s creativity and imagination are sabotaged and stifled by the evil plate-making industry. Seriously?! Get over yourself, man! Or a chef looking for compassion and empathy because he had to work in environments so beneath them, like catering. Oh, how terrible for you! Life must have really sucked, huh, mr. best restaurant in Asia man… Good grief! In the first episode alone we see a preposterous conversation about encapsulating the essence of time in a dish, as well as the rhetorical question of why people pay so much to eat tomatoes and strawberries… The irony is completely lost on these folks. They’ve drunk their own organic deconstructed sous-vide liquid nitrogen Kool-Aid and are so full of themselves that they are beyond hope. That said, the food they make does look very pretty, even if the art is beginning to overtake the actual act of eating, and some of the locations showcased over these six episodes are breathtakingly beautiful.
The first episode focuses on Grant Achatz, and if you’ve already seen the documentary Spinning Plates then you already know the story. Famous for his avant-guard Chicago restaurant Alinea, the chef overcame setbacks and even cancer, to become one of the best restauranteurs in the world. His food is a bit gimmicky and doesn’t read as very appetizing, but I guess that may be the point. We follow his episode with Alex Atala, a Brazilian chef who, and this is a running theme amongst almost all the episodes, has the mission of making his nation’s cuisine respected all over the world. I wish the focus had been more on his search of Amazonian ingredients and how he incorporates them into his cooking, but we mostly hear about his love for punk music, how hard he’s had it, and are treated to him in various stages of undress as the camera gazes at his many tattoos. Rock on, dude! Enrique Olvera really wants you to believe that Mexican food can be sophisticated, and seems to have an inferiority complex. He also is completely ok with the fact that he’s a bad husband and father, and states that you can’t have it all and you must have priorities in life… Gaggan Anand really wants you to believe that Indian food can be sophisticated. He’s famous because he copied a recipe from El Bulli and because he switched the olives with yogurt, he declares himself the best in the world.
As opposed to last season, this time we have two, instead of one, female chefs. I am trying to not read too much into the fact that their episodes are the shortest of the bunch, one significantly so, and just appreciate that this isn’t a (delicious and perfectly seasoned) sausage fest. The other troubling thing is that both female chefs, the French San-Francisco-based Dominique Crenn and the Slovenian Ana Ros, are portrayed in relation to the men in their lives, something that isn’t done with their male counterparts, whose mothers or wives or children are so marginalized that they don’t even appear on screen. Instead Dominique’s story is about her father as much as it is about her. Ana’s episode is really a tandem episode with her husband, and her relationship with her father is also fundamental to the story structure. That said, these two chefs also seem to be the ones who actually enjoy what they do, who don’t portray an affected machismo or suffering for the craft, the way the men do. They also have the most edible-looking and appetizing food. I was really hoping that this post wouldn’t necessarily delve into gender topics, as most of my posts usually do, but when the differences are so evident and clear, it’s hard not to pay attention to the subtle ways in which we tell stories about people in the same field. The show should be better than it is. Especially when the discourse already is one that reduces women to nourishers and men to artists (even though all the men this season seem to be really really really obsessed with edible flowers for some reason).
I was underwhelmed and let down by the fact that this second season is much more focused on the personal lives of the chefs and so little attention is paid to the actual food. David Gelb needs to re-watch his own Jiro Dreams of Sushi and course correct, going back to what made that documentary and even the majority of the first season so fingerlicking, food porny, decadently delicious!