Chef’s Table returns with a completely unnecessary spinoff Chef’s Table: France. I really don’t understand why this side project. Usually a spinoff takes an idea and does something different with it. In this case, the format is identical – literally there is absolutely no difference. And it’s not like the regular series doesn’t showcase more than one chef from a specific country – both seasons 1 and 2 had two chefs each from the United States, how hard would it have been to simply add two episodes to each, focusing on French chefs as well? There is nothing inherently wrong with this brief, four episode spinoff, it just doesn’t make sense why it is a solo, France specific project (other than the fact that both seasons of the regular show conspicuously had no French chefs in the mix).
That said, there are some great cuisines and chefs that are focused on. The first is Parisian chef Alain Passard, and his three star restaurant L’Arpege. Passard made a bizarre choice several years ago to switch his cuisine to a totally vegetarian menu. Except for a mention of his grandmother who taught him the beginnings of cooking, Passard is the only chef in this docuseries to not have a focus on his life, but only on his cooking and his food philosophy. We see a true love for produce and a meticulous dedication to enhancing the flavors of these gifts from the earth. There is a significant portion of the episode dedicated to his farm, and how the ingredients are direct representations of the man who grows and then cooks them. The episode is quiet, lovely, and a love letter to what usually are regarded as side items. Eventually the chef returned to cooking meat (like his Frankenstein-esque half duck and half chicken, pictured above) – but his mission is still to make the vegetables on the plate sing louder than anything else you may find on it.
Alexandre Couillon’s mission, on the other hand, is to highlight that good food can come from anywhere, even areas not regarded as culinary meccas. His restaurant La Marine, located on a semi-island on the western coast of the country, focuses on seafood and local products. The chef’s last name has an unpleasant meaning in French, and so he has worked hard not just to change the reputation of his home town, but also change the meaning of his last name, and make something positive out of it. The chef is affable and he seems like a lovely family man, but in spite of his two Michelin stars, neither he or his food were particularly inspiring. I found his episode to be the most forgettable, possible also because I had never heard of his particular area, and so I had no connotations when hearing about it. When there is nothing to fight against, one only looks at the product, and while everything looked great, I simply didn’t feel as inspired by his episode.
On the other hand, I loved the episode focusing on Adeline Grattard. Call me overly sensitive, but it bugged me that it only took six minutes before her cooking was referred to as feminine. It’s not said as an insult, but every episode of Chef’s Table that focuses on a female chef does this, and it would be nice if the focus were on the food alone and on the fact that her restaurant Yam’Tcha in Paris is one of the best and most inspiring in the city. Rant over. Her restaurant is a blend of French and Chinese cuisine and influences. Grattard’s husband is Chinese, and together they provide an experience rarely had. This was the one restaurant I could see myself spending too much money on, worth the expense. Instead of wine pairings, Yam’Tcha provides tea pairings instead – and the way that they talk about tea makes me want to have that experience in a way other episodes don’t. Don’t get me wrong, everything looks delicious, but I am kinda poor, so I accept that these restaurants are off limits to me, but something about Grattard and her approach to food made my tongue salivate and heart sing in ways other episodes did not.
The last episode is also the best one. I actually didn’t want it to end and I wish it had been feature length and a stand alone film. David Gelb, the producer of the entire series, directed it, and you can tell. It has the same qualities as his documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi that started this whole thing off. It even has a similar story of Jiro’s, except this episode focuses on the son, and not the father. Michel Troisgros inherited the restaurant La Maison Troisgros from his father and uncle, who in turn had inherited it from their father. The restaurant has enjoyed more than 30 consecutive years as a three star restaurant, one of the few places that can make such a claim. Michel’s father and uncle had also been culinary stars in France, being the inventors of nouvelle cuisine and television stars (think Julia Child). Michel, as soon as he took over the restaurant, though did immediately away with the restaurant’s signature dish, the famous salmon and sorrel, as a means to exorcise expectations and create a voice for himself. This is a story of acceptance, making peace with one’s history, generational dynamics, and love. There is already a fourth generation of the Troisgros family, ready to take over and further the family’s fame and good name. The episode even managed to get a tear out of me at the end.
So while this spinoff shouldn’t exist in the first place, fans of the docuseries will enjoy watching these episodes, as they don’t deviate at all from the winning formula. All episodes are in French, just an FYI. So dig in, and as usual, don’t watch the show while you’re hungry.