I’ve been watching a documentary series called “Chef’s Table” on Netflix and am two thirds of the way through them. In each one, a chef is featured along with a biographical sketch and geographical context (Italy, Patagonia, New York, L.A.) The format is crisp and the photography is gorgeous. Way better than the standard fare on PBS!
The protagonists selected are not “pop stars” of cuisine as featured on the Cooking Channel. Instead, the message of each one depicts the individual journey each person follows in order to discover and create his/her own identity in the food that they prepare and serve. Instead of imitating and replicating the kind of cuisine that one has been taught, they use the techniques to discover or rediscover their cultural origins and most importantly, what they really want to do with their cooking. And we thought cooking was just about satisfying us because we’re hungry?
So, the “holy grail”quest for chefs portrayed in this series is finding one’s identity in one’s cooking. In writing, it’s called finding your voice. It’s not enough just to provide tasty dishes, the soul of the chef must be communicated to those who eat his/her food. I’ve experienced this while listening to pianists who succeed in communicating in this way to listeners and you can tell when it’s there and regrettably, when it’s not.
And these chefs are very human, warts and all – Dan Barber is particularly cranky and verbally abusive to his “team” of chefs in the kitchen. He owns up to the fact that he has a temper but doesn’t care to do much about it, even while the camera is rolling as he criticizes and swears at his sous chefs.
Ego is a big element too, especially with the male chef, Francis Mallman who revels repeatedly about his freedom to wander and to love and leave whomever and whenever he feels like it, traveling four-five times a week. When he was invited to participate in an international cooking competition in Europe (he’s from Argentina) he smuggled in half a ton of Andes potatoes, creating ten dishes including dessert made from his native spuds. He won, by the way.
Or, reverse ego with the Japanese woman chef (Niki Nakayama) who comes off as defensive, wanting to please and to succeed because people say she can’t. Couldn’t the producers have found a female chef who didn’t epitomize issues of chauvinism all around? Oh, and they also chose to out her relationship with her female sous chef as part of the gratuitous characterization of the one woman chef in the series. Really?
One “farm to table” chapter (Dan Barber) illustrated how our food products have been so over-processed to make profits for the manufacturers that there is no taste nor nutrition left in what we are offered in grocery stores. For example, what does true wheat tastes like? One grower was astonished to be asked to develop a smaller butternut squash with less water and more flavor, saying that he had never been asked to grow something to taste better, only to enhance crop production and shelf life.
So, if you follow that thread and look around you, one discovers that what we buy is for the benefit of the producers in terms of profit and not nutrition and taste for consumers. DUH!!??? How did it take this long for us to realize this economic reality so that we can pay more attention to what we buy and how we cook?
We’ll probably never serve the kinds of dishes featured in these restaurants nor cook meals over huge fires dug into the earth, but our eyes and ears can be opened further by this very interesting documentary series called “Chef’s Table.”
Quality is dependent upon what goes into the food we eat and it’s helpful to recognize that we’re not getting it in most grocery stores. The chefs’ search for identity aside, the photography of wilderness and closeups of food offer a moveable feast for any foodie who likes to eat or to cook, especially both.