Just when I think that Chef’s Table has run out of fresh ideas and can’t really deliver anything truly outstanding, David Gelb (the show’s creator and sometimes director) manages to pull an astounding feat off like pure magic. The most recent season of the Netflix docuseries does something a little different this season and expands the scope of what it means to be a chef, focusing some of its attention away from the standard Michelin starred and San Pellegrino rated restaurants and into more non-traditional culinary environments. And the show is so much better because of this. This, like all others, is an uneven season, with some nearly unwatchable episodes, but a couple of very good ones, and one so outstanding it is pure art that transcends into a breathtaking work of pure art.
It’s almost too bad that the opening episode is the best of the entire series. It sets up unfair expectations for the viewer for how beautiful and meditative it is, leaving the other five episodes annihilated in its wake. The season opener focuses on Jeong Kwan, who is not a traditional chef. Jeong is a Buddhist Monk in the Korean mountains, whose approach to food and cooking is religious and transcendental in every way. As a vegetarian, Jeong’s mission is to approach each ingredient with the utmost respect and care, making sure to draw out flavor as a means to interact and symbiotically live with nature. Even her garden is non-traditional, as she lets things grow as they wish, making use of what nature chooses to bestow upon her. And her food… It is on par with what the best chef’s in the world produce, and measures up in every which way. On a show where ego seems to be the biggest helping being served, Jeong’s humility is a breath of fresh air and I couldn’t get enough of it. She has humor, pathos, drive, and passion. There is no space in her worldview for negativity, and her food showcases this perfectly. I was in awe throughout the gorgeously shot episode and never wanted it to end. Alas, it did, giving way to a motley group of dissonant episodes.
First the good. The episodes focusing on Nancy Silverton and Virgilio Martinez are quite good, and make for very entertaining episodes. Silverton, the chef and owner of Mozza in Los Angeles, sees her episode focused on how she overcame the shadows of men in her life who were lesser cooks than she but gained more fame, and became an exquisite baker. The highlighting of bread making and baking throughout the episode was also very welcome, as too often this show is all about deconstructed dishes with gels, purees, and foams, but skill and precision taking a back seat. Silverton emphasizes the need for structure and following rules, because only then can they be broken. Meanwhile Martinez’s episode is about how food can be an opportunity to experiment, not with form or flavor, but with ingredients altogether. Martinez takes full advantage of his location in Peru to find comestible items in the Amazon rainforest which nobody would ever think to ingest. From moss to ways to cook with soil, Martinez is quite the visionary. The fact that he is willing to share the spotlight with others, especially his sister, makes him a positive example of a chef who understands that the best food is born out of collaboration and mutual trust and respect. And thus his episode is stronger because of this.
But as we know, chef’s tend not to be so generous, and most have awful personalities that are unpleasant and off-putting. And so we now must discuss the other three episodes of the season, which were all three nearly unwatchable for me. It took all my willpower to keep watching, and I simply could not bring myself to watch them all in one go. I had to view them in increments because of how horrific these three men are, regardless of what their food looked like. Vladimir Mukhin is a Russian chef whose daddy was mean to him and so he wanted to reinvent Russian food. His cuisine is pretty ugly and unappetizing, and his restaurant is gaudy, tacky, and kitsch to the extreme – a fever dream with an Alice in Wonderland theme. Ivan Orkin is a foul-mouthed chef who decided that he could make ramen better than the Japanese. Tim Raue is a German bully who berates his employees and undermines them at every opportunity. He also used to be a violent hooligan who terrorized the Berlin streets in his youth. But apparently we are supposed to care about him because his food might be good.
Once again we have a mixed bag of episodes, some bad, some great, and some incredible. I guess this is like going out to eat. Sometimes the food is indigestible and makes us wish for a home cooked meal instead. Other times the food is satisfying, filling, and comforting. And rarely, if we are lucky, we are treated to something special, unforgettable, savoring flavors and tastes we never expected and possibly knew possible. And that’s why I keep watching Chef’s Table, because you never know when something truly great might be waiting for you around the corner.