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Netflix Original ‘Chef’s Table’ not just for foodies


June 24, 2015

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I’m not exactly what someone would refer to as a “food person.” Sure, I love a going out to a fancy restaurant and enjoy a good meal as much as anyone else.

But I’ve also been known to have Wheat Thins for dinner and consider a candy bar a semi-respectable meal substitute during a busy shift at work. All in all, I’m about as familiar with Michelin stars as I am the Michelin Man, which is to say, not very.

Now that I’ve completely negated any cred I may have had with the foodies of the world, let me say this: Netflix’s original series “Chef’s Table” makes me wish I knew more about cuisine so I could more fully appreciate what goes into some of the featured dishes. However, you don’t need to be a culinary connoisseur to enjoy this Netflix original; it appeals to all kinds of sensibilities, and the six-episode series is certainly worth gobbling up if you get the chance.

“Chef’s Table” was created by David Gelb, the director of the award-winning documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” If you enjoyed the latter, you will appreciate this series. Much in the same vein as “Jiro,” “Chef’s Table” is all about cooking and not about cooking at all. Each of the six episodes are more about that chef’s remarkable journey out of obscurity, his or her passion for perfection and the artistry that has made him or her one of the most accomplished chef’s of the most sought-after restaurants in the world.

Human interest

Whether you’re listening to Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s retelling of his courtship with now-wife Lara or contemplating Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann’s admitted selfishness, the viewer is always learning something about the human condition while watching “Chef’s Table.” It just so happens that the six personalities presented in this series also happen to be truly remarkable chefs with accompanying personality quirks and varying temperaments. You may like some of the chefs in the series and you’ll probably dislike one or two as well, but each of them presents a compelling argument for why his or her perspective on food is important.

The two episodes I found most compelling were Episode 1: Massimo Bottura and Episode 4: Niki Nakayama. Bottura fought a difficult battle in his native Italy has he tried to push the envelope in a country where you don’t mess with mama’s recipes. With the help of his wife’s artistic vision, Bottura eventually broke onto the scene in a way that validated his provocative food choices. Bottura’s dishes are some of the most visually and conceptually interesting in the series.

Nakayama is inherently fascinating as the sole female chef of the bunch, a fact that is pretty indicative of the gender balance (or lack thereof) in culinary culture. Nakayama grew up in a traditional Japanese household and was always told she would be a supporting character to the men in her life. Rather than let that inhibit her ambition, Nakayama thrived when little was expected of her. Hers isn’t a story of self-pity or downtroddenness, but one of resolve and joy.

Visually delicious

Aside from the compelling human element, “Chef’s Table” is beautifully shot; the cinematography is equally as delicious as its subject matter. If you’re more film geek than gastronomy enthusiast, this is your entry point. With landscapes that vary from the Swedish boondocks of Faviken to the cobblestone-lined streets of Modena, Italy, the scenery in each episode is special and a vital part of each chef’s story. And the imagery of the food itself? Let’s just say if you’re into slow-motion shots of sauces being drizzled, meats being sliced and small portions being plated, this is your “Citizen Kane.” The delicacy and intimacy with which each chef’s courses are photographed are enough to make your mouth water. It’s colorful. It’s lush. And it opens the viewer’s eyes to the idea of cooking as an act of artistry, which it is in the hands of each of the six chefs depicted.

From farm to table

If neither the voyeurism nor the cinematic finesse are enough, consider “Chef’s Table” as a way to reimagine one’s relationship with food. In the United States especially, we tend to be disconnected from what’s on our dinner plates. Chefs like Episode 2’s Dan Barber, in particular, challenge the viewer to reconsider that attitude. One of the great things about this series is that it does not depict sterile kitchen after sterile kitchen as if ingredients arrive washed and measured. “Chef’s Table” really succeeds in showing all parts of running a kitchen, including the curating of quality ingredients. There’s a mindfulness in each chef’s selection process, a choosiness that is hard not to have stick between your teeth. It’s an idea that isn’t force-fed to the viewer, yet is a lingering influence nonetheless.

In the end, if you are interested in watching a succinct series that is equally appetizing and fascinating, “Chef’s Table” is another in a long line of quality series distributed by Netflix. Although I may not fully understand fancy cuisine’s obsession with dainty portions and odd sauces (one of Chef Nilsson’s signature dishes is called “Colostrum & Blueberries”), I loved studying six people who have excelled in their fields while simultaneously getting glimpses around the world with the soundtrack of a symphony (and my stomach grumbling).

Content advisory

If you’re at all familiar with Gordon Ramsay, you know that chefs can be known for their colorful language. While “Chef’s Table” isn’t rated, there is strong language in many of the episodes, particularly frequently in Episode 2: Dan Barber. The rest of the episodes have more brief instances of strong language with the exception of Episode 1: Massimo Bottura and Episode 6: Magnus Nilsson which are more mild.

There are also alternative lifestyles presented in episodes 3 and 4.

While there is no depiction of slaughtering live animals, most of the episodes show some handling of raw meat, sometimes showing the handling of partial animal carcasses that some viewers may find disturbing.

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