Friday, May 29, 2015

The Language of Dreams: Chef's Table

Massimo Bottura is one of six chefs profiled on Netflix's new documentary series, Chef's Table.

"Tradition sometimes doesn't respect the ingredients."
                  – Massimo Bottura, in the first episode of Netflix's Chef's Table.
I'm no foodie, although I have been known to eat – sometimes several times in a single week. For years, I've contemplated signing up for cooking classes (but never pulled the trigger) and one day, bank account permitting, I would love to own a world-class knife set. My relationship to food is erratic at best (a fact testified to by my rollercoasting blood sugar), and my relationship to food television is almost nonexistent. As deep as my love of television goes, cooking shows rarely make the cut – with Heston Blumenthal's short-lived BBC series In Search of Perfection (2006-2007) being an informative and entertaining exception to that rule (but who among us could resist the promise of the perfect Peking duck recipe?). And so if not for my wife deliberately calling me in to watch the last 10 minutes or so of the first episode of Chef's Table three nights ago, I might never have even seen the new Netflix documentary series. As it was, I sat down on the couch with her and was immediately drawn in – and even though it was already past 1 A.M., we didn't stand up until the credits rolled on Episode 2.

Television's love affair with cooking and chefs is long-standing, from Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse to chefs that are TV and media franchises unto themselves, like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, and Anthony Bourdain. As endemic as they have been though, food shows do not often push at the boundaries of the medium. (Their domination of the reality show genre is more proof of that, though I can credit the fact that as least I know I have no idea how to properly slice an onion to an early episode of MasterChef.) Premiering on April 26, Chef's Table is Netflix's first original documentary series, and it is a profound compliment to say that you can watch the entire season and not learn a single recipe. What you will discover are six singular personalities, each with their own engaging stories and personalities that confound the "swearing at the sous chef" tropes of most on-screen chefs.

Filmmaker David Gelb (whose inaugural film, the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, also delved deeply in the world of food) is the man behind Chef's Table. Gelb also directed the show's first and perhaps most affecting episode, devoted to Italian chef Massimo Bottura. The subsequent five episodes follow Gelb's lead, devoting equal time to the chef in the kitchen and to the story of how the chef got there. A "chef's table" is a table set up in a restaurant's kitchen for special guests; Netflix's viewers are given that kind of access. We watch them cook and hear them talk about cooking. We see them in their homes, at farmers markets choosing vegetables and at harbours negotiating with fisherman. And we get to see what the food they create. (There is an exquisite anguish in the fact that current technology falls short at letting us taste the food that is so beautifully photographed and displayed in every episode.)

Chef Niki Nakayama (right) looks on as an assistant works in her kitchen.

In every episode the subject, along with a rotating gallery of food critics and writers, recounts stories of their struggles and their successes. We meet their spouses, their siblings, their partners and their children. Gelb takes up on a truly international tour: from the southernmost tip of Argentinean Patagonia, with Francis Mallmann, to to the west with Ben Shewry's restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, to the far north of Järpen, Sweden (population: 1,400), with Magnus Nilsson. The show also introduces one up-and-comer among its rock star, Michelin-ranked chefs: Los Angeles' Niki Nakayama. (The youngest and least renowned among the chefs profiled, Nakayama is also the only female chef on the menu this season.) Six times, in six different ways, we learn just why and how someone could devote their lives to food. Almost all suffer from long hours separated from their loved ones, friends, or children, and each deal in their own ways with an industry in which even the most successful always live on the cusp of imminent failure. Chef's Table is a celebration of passion and artistry that, despite its lush images of food and landscape, doesn't pull many punches. Nakayama's story, for one example, is inseparable from the sexism she regularly experiences in the still male-dominated food world. But the star of every episode is food Рand often food at its most basic.

The series begins almost literally with a bang: with images of the earthquake that nearly destroyed Modena, Italy in 2012 – a 6.0 magnitude quake that killed more than half a dozen residents, displaced thousands from their homes, and risked throwing the region's famed cheese industry into permanent disarray, with local cheesemakers finding themselves with over 300,000 wheels of damaged cheese, Bottura raised awareness of the disaster worldwide, and stepped up with risotto cacio e pepe , a new risotto recipe using Parmesan instead of the traditional Pecorino: "recipe as social justice," as Bottura describes it. Over the next hour, we get a glimpse into a life passionately lived, as he struggles to bring the "Italian kitchen" into the 21st century. His wife, US-born Lara Gilmore, gets almost as much screen time as her husband – a two-decade relationship that runs almost perfectly parallel to the rise of his cooking career. Of Lara, a wistful Bottura says, "we share the language of creativity, and the language of dreams."

The second episode was equally compelling – profiling Dan Barber, an NYC restaurateur at the forefront of the so-called "farm-to-table" movement. As much ethical entrepreneur as chef, Barber's story brings home a value shared by all six chefs profiled on Chef's Table: cooking is about eating, eating is about flavour, and flavour is about ingredients more than technique. Whether it comes from Barber's environmentally-minded philosophy, Magnus Nilsson's born-of-the-60s freewheeling bohemian worldview, or Bottura's nostalgia for scraps from his grandmother's kitchen, each of the subjects of Chef's Table demonstrate a contagious "respect for ingredients" that will change the way you think about food, and likely the way you will buy and eat it. If solely environmental arguments for farm-to-market shopping, eating locally, and eating seasonally appropriate foods have never impressed you, the case that these chefs make for flavour and for respecting ecosystems (both agricultural and social) that goes into producing flavour may have you checking out a nearby farmers market this summer.

The first season of Chef's Table is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide. No word yet on whether a second season is in the works.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.      

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