Top Chef

Sunday, June 19, 2016
Back in 2012, I listed the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi as my #3 favorite movie of the year. It's not hard to see why. Combine a compelling topic with an innate love of sushi, and toss in some fantastic food photography, and of course I'd be magnetically drawn to it. When I heard that director David Gelb was developing a similar documentary style as a television series for Netflix, I was overjoyed.

That first season of Chef's Table has been out for a while now, but it wasn't until I heard that Season 2 episodes were being released that I finally carved out some free time to wrap up those first six episodes. Each of the episodes focuses on a single chef, and delves into not only his or her most well-known dishes, but their backgrounds and what made cooking such an important part of their lives. The overwhelmingly beautiful food photography is back, and it's fascinating to see how fine dining has diverged into such wildly different concepts, depending on the creative mind behind it.

The six chefs that the first season revolves around are from all across the world, and all have different motivations for wanting to excel in the food world. One will want to spread a message of sustainable eating and how the next generation will source its ingredients, while another got her start just wanting to prove to her family that she has the skill and drive necessary to be a success.

As with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, part of the appeal is getting behind the magic of the beautiful food to get at the stories behind it. Food as a business is constantly locked in a struggle between artistry and commerce, and I'm always interested in seeing how people succeed or fail at threading that needle. Here are six stories of people who hit the bullseye, and whose cooking has attracted worldwide attention. It's wonderful to see people achieve their dreams and achieve such a vast measure of success, of course, but in a weird twist, these chefs' prominence is also the series' biggest flaw.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there was no illusion that Jiro was an ordinary guy. He is rightly depicted as the king of his castle. He may be artistic, but he's also a stern and demanding taskmaster, whose rigidity has made him a reliable and consistent force in the culinary world. Chef's Table takes the weird tack of trying to sell a "common thread" narrative, positing that since food unites us all as people, these chefs should be hailed for building strong fellowships and a sense of community.

That just doesn't work. As nice as some of these chefs are (and most seem like perfectly decent sorts, if a little emotionally distant), they are not "of the people". These are the best of the best, and while it's perfectly acceptable to celebrate their talent, that talent is only shared with diners with sizable bank accounts and the connections necessary to getting a sought-after seat in a very small dining room.

That misstep aside, this is still a must-watch for anyone as obsessive about the world of food as I am, or for those who like to see what drives the creative spark behind some truly impressive art. I just wish the show would stop pretending that any of us plebeians will ever get to experience it.

Chef's Table - Season 1: B