Hungry Boy

Digest

Chef's Table, Ranked

 
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Oh, Chef’s Table. Your delicious slow-motion montages of food keep me coming back season after season. Don’t you know I’m unable to resist each time you show a time-lapse of bread rising to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Winter”? Through your episodes, I’ve been introduced to a world I can only afford to visually indulge in through my $13.99 a month Netflix subscription. Yes, your pretentious nature kept me at remote’s length for quite some time, especially amongst the negative media attention over the years. But eventually, your crisp, close-up shots of falling garnishes and bubbling sauces won me over, even if it meant enduring the occasional eye roll or two. Within your stories, I have come to understand the potential of power of food to celebrate, preserve, and transform community. While I recognize these lessons are delivered through a privileged lens, it has been nice to follow the evolution in your more recent episodes that deliver a gradient of experiences, zooming out beyond the fine-dining scene. In the viewing of the recent release of Volume Five, I was inspired to examine all episodes in attempts to make Chef’s Table approachable for even the most skeptical of viewers. You see, Chef’s Table, you have the potential to inspire and educate beyond the context of the culinary world, and I believe you could be enjoyed by an audience made up of more than just a certain kind of food lover. And so, that is why I want to suggest to anyone interested in beginning this series to break the cycle of viewing from the normal sequential order, using the guide below to tailor a more digestible, individualized experience. Here is my take on all the current (US) episodes of Chef’s Table, ranked by pretentiousness from least to greatest.

Volume 5, Episode 1, Cristina Martinez: How cool and fearless is Cristina Martinez? An undocumented immigrant who has garnered a lot of attention in mainstream media over the last few years, Martinez has transformed the Philadelphian dining scene with her traditional Mexican cuisine. She is more than just a chef, using her newfound notoriety to become an outspoken advocate for immigrant workers rights. While food is such a key factor in Martinez’s journey, it takes a backseat to the bigger picture at hand. This story is so timely and important. I’m not crying, you’re crying!

Volume 3, Episode 1, Jeong Kwan: Jeong Kwan does not own a restaurant and is not a chef—she is a Buddhist monk. The simplicity and care of the “temple food” she prepares daily for her fellow monks is highly influenced by nature and steeped in tradition. As viewers, we are given the unique opportunity to understand Kwan’s story and viewpoint by intimately sharing her space at the Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea. She is unfazed and unbothered by the culinary world’s fascination with her, making this an equally charming and enlightening profile to watch.

Volume 4, Episode 1, Christina Tosi: Christina Tosi is indulgent in her mission and taste. Arguably the most notable woman in contemporary sweets, her super-sweet concoctions have transformed dessert trends worldwide. She is direct in her vision while imaginative with her flavors, creating a self-made success story that anyone with a sweet tooth will truly admire.

Volume 5, Episode 3, Musa Dağdeviren: Istanbul-based Musa Dağdeviren considers himself less of a chef and more of a “food archaeologist” and his restaurant, Ciya, is less of a restaurant and more of a “food museum.” Yes, the idea sounds quite lofty, but the sentiment is there. Through food, Dağdeviren has set out on a mission to preserve nearly extinct Turkish traditions. For him, culture is not mutually exclusive to education or class, and Turkish cuisine proves to be an extremely accessible outlet to bring all types of backgrounds together. Also, that end spread is simply incredible.

Volume 3, Episode 4, Nancy Silverton: Nancy Silverton is driven by one thing: obsession. While she has built a Los Angeles food empire because of this, her constant need to achieve perfection keeps her grounded amongst the decades of universal acclaim she’s received. At the end of the day, Silverton shamelessly serves delicious, nourishing carb-forward comfort foods that celebrate Southern California produce with an Italian flare. Between the numerous time-lapses of bread rising and slo-mo shots of pizza dough bubbling included in this episode, what’s not to love?

Volume 5, Episode 3, Bo Songvisava: “Why would you try to sell ice to an eskimo?” This was the general sentiment shared by the public when Bo Songvisava set out to open a restaurant in Bangkok that served true, authentic Thai food. But in a society where industrialization has transformed the food economy, such seemingly accessible cuisine is becoming harder and harder to find. Songvisava has established her restaurant Bo.Lan as a celebrated home to protect and preserve these local flavors.

Volume 2, Episode 4, Enrique Olvera: Through Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York City, chef Enrique Olvera has established a permanent place for Mexican cuisine in the fine dining world. He challenges the perceptions of Mexican cuisine by approaching traditional recipes with a playful and honest intent. Olvera’s recipes are steeped in custom with respect to local ingredients, putting otherwise unknown flavors on an international stage. Through diversifying ideas of what luxury entails, Olvera is a great example of how a chef can debunk the myths on the inaccessibility of fine dining as a whole.

Volume 2, Episode 6, Gaggan Anand: Did you know that the word “curry” was invented by the British as a catch-all term for any foreign soupy dish, and that naan bread actually originated from Persia? For a culture whose relationship with food is so ingrained into society, the world’s perception of Indian food is all wrong. Chef Gaggan Anand believes that our inability to see the potential of Indian cuisine beyond comfort food has withheld it from taking its rightful place in the upper echelons of the fine dining world. At the eponymously named Gaggan restaurant in Bangkok, he is trying to change that. Starting out from humble beginnings, he is grounded and playful, all of his dishes traceable back to street food that captures lesser known ingredients and techniques of various Indian subcultures.

Volume 3, Episode 5, Ivan Orkin: A Jewish New Yorker opens a restaurant that serves some of the best ramen in the world—makes total sense, right? Maybe even after watching this episode, it still won’t make sense. But the beauty of it all is that Ivan Orkin, founder of Ivan Ramen in New York City, is self-aware enough to understand this. His larger-than-life presence inevitably allows a more approachable story. In his compelling journey of love and loss, there is a curious balance of humor, heartbreak, and crassness that can’t be tamed by this otherwise super-refined show.

Volume 2, Episode 2, Alex Atala: We are first introduced to Brazilian chef Alex Atala as he recalls an acid trip that led to a dream that helped him to understand “the meaning of life.” If the prospect of a food-based show attempting to tackle such a far-reaching concept doesn’t make your eyes roll, then you will eat this episode up. But if you are as skeptical as me, I am here to tell you that getting through this lofty opener is worth it. At D.O.M. in São Paulo, Atala has risen to the forefront of the international food scene by establishing a place to celebrate and explore Brazilian cuisine. He breaks the traditional social limits of certain ingredients by serving dishes that are focused in the “luxury of their experience” rather than their price tag. His no-B.S., straightforward approach stems from Atala’s efforts to support natural conservation efforts, employing his food to become a springboard to seek greater social and political change.

Volume 1, Episode 5, Ben Shewry: In this episode, we follow Ben Shewry’s journey to becoming head chef at Atticca in Melbourne, where he takes advantage of the abundance of lesser used Australian ingredients in a robust yet refined manner. With the exception of a dish he created in attempts to capture the feelings from almost drowning when he was a kid, the most pretentious bits of this episode did not stem from the food or Shewry himself. Rather, the perspectives of the food critics that were interviewed made things seem quite unapproachable (albeit pretty entertaining). This story for me is most successful when we are left to Shewry’s straightforward, self-aware explanations that give great insight to the consequences of success. It is a poignant of self-realization that would be relatable for anyone, regardless of their interest in food.

Volume 1, Episode 4, Niki Nakayama: Everything Niki Nakayama does is fueled by her desire to prove herself. As a Japanese-American female chef, she has successfully challenged societal expectations through her Los-Angeles restaurant N/NAKA. She serves her own take on the Japanese philosophy of kaiseki, a succession of small courses that each inform the next in technique, content, and style. Sure, this episode is an endless parade of tiny plates. But Niki’s approach to her craft is a true testament to the boundless creativity that food can provide. What’s more, she tracks and records every single guest’s dining experiences to ensure that she never repeats a dish twice. If that’s not enough for you, at least tune in to see how truly poetic scaling and gutting a fish can be (I know, but trust me).  

Volume 2, Episode 5, Ana Ros: Yes, this episode opens with a lofty iteration of the crucial nature of love. And yes, chef Ana Roš of Hiša Franco in Slovenia does things like plating her dishes ever so delicately with tweezers. There are a lot of pretentious notions to take in, so understandably, I initially had a hard time with this episode. But after letting go of fact that I wouldn’t necessarily come to understand her, I realized there was still a lot I could learn. Do you know anything about Slovenia? No? Let this episode educate you. Roš’s story comes across as idyllic, yet is filled with plenty of quirks (brandy shots at 7am, anyone?). It is the ultimate culinary fairytale, yet a grounded look into an overlooked profession in an overlooked region. This episode is a culmination of everything both good and bad I have come to find with the general pretension Chef’s Table, but when viewed with an open mind, it’s completely worth the indulgence.

Volume 1, Episode 1, Massimo Bottura: This inaugural episode of the series is a pretty good test for whether or not you will enjoy the rest of Chef’s Table. In Modena, Italy, chef Massimo Bottura challenges Italian cuisine by re-approaching traditional recipes in an experimental, inventive manner. The unapproachable nature of Osteria Francescana is contextualized with Bottura’s backstory, bridging the gap between his seemingly farfetched approach and his respect to the comfort in tradition. As one critic loftily explains, “one of the most important ingredients that Massimo uses is memory.” It’s much for fun when we just get to listen to him: “[I am] poisoning ideas, poisoning a generation...poisoning my grandmother’s recipes.” Bring it on.

Volume 4, Episode 2, Corrado Assenza: I don’t like being shamed by the suggestion that I’ve been experiencing something so beloved all wrong (in this case, gelato), and it’s episodes like this that leave me feeling hopeless and naive. At Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily, Corrado Assenza delivers timeless treats steeped in family tradition with ingredients informed by his surrounding environment. Will the episode end with you making a vow to pinch pennies so that you can travel halfway across the world to find out if you belong on team lemon or almond granita? Sure. But have no fear—the jealousy and wanderlust that this episode will undoubtedly fill you with is free.

Volume 3, Episode 5, Tim Raue: Between the white tablecloths, the small portions, the two Michelin star rating, and the Asian-fusion focus, the eponymously named Tim Raue Restaurant in Berlin seems like the perfect candidate to become the basis for one of the most pretentious episodes in the entire series, especially by featuring a chef who opens the episode by proclaiming himself as an “egocentric...[and proud] of it” (one critic quite simply calls him an “arrogant bastard”). But as we learn more about Raue’s backstory, we are immediately pulled into a compelling tale of how he found massive success in the face of adversity. While I won’t go into much detail, this episode not only highlights how growing up in the confines of the Berlin Wall can influence one’s upbringing, but how the fallout of a war-torn country inhibits cultural growth. While you don’t have to finish this episode liking Tim Raue as a person, I believe it is an important lesson in empathy: to like and to respect someone—even admiring, in this case—are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Volume 4, Episode 3, Jordi Roca: The youngest of three brothers, Jordy Roca finally found his footing in the family business after falling into the pastry chef position at El Cellar de Can Roca in Catalonia. We barely actually hear from him in this episode, as a rare case of laryngitis has left him with the inability to use his speaking voice. Instead of letting his newfound handicap inhibit is professional career, he adapts his situation to inspire his desserts by “turning tables” on familiar ideas and “being rebellious.” The results are multisensory scientific discoveries fueled by childlike wonder, proving that even places with three Michelin stars can serve playful, fresh creations with an unabashed sense of pride.

Volume 2, Episode 3, Dominique Crenn: At Atelier Crenn, guests are given a poem in lieu of a traditional menu. Dishes are meant to evoke similar feelings of each line of poetry instead of acting as a literal translation. If you can get behind this concept, you might fall in love with this episode on Dominique Crenn. If you can’t, that’s ok too (come back to it when you are feeling a bit more sentimental). Either way, there is no doubt Dominique Crenn is a powerhouse: while she is romantic in her approach, she is the first female chef to receive two Michelin stars. As one critic suggests, Crenn is one of the first to fully realize the art-based theory of modernism purely through food. In her own words: “I’m not serving a menu, I’m serving a story.”

Volume 5, Episode 4, Albert Adrià: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...until now. We are finally given a chance to hear the story of Albert Adrià, the lesser known of the two brothers who pioneered the avant-garde food scene at their restaurant El Bulli in the early 2000s. Now running a one-man show at Tickets in Barcelona, Adrià fuses fine dining and fun through his experimental take on tapas. As an extreme introvert, he does not like being in the spotlight, but recognizes the importance of claiming his spot in the history of the molecular gastronomy movement. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it is at least great to understand history that some of the other Chef’s Table episodes touch on, with some extreme mad scientist visuals to boot. Just try to ignore the played out quail metaphor that doesn’t seem to go away throughout the majority of this episode.

Volume 4, Episode 4, Will Goldfarb: Mid-episode, American pastry chef Will Goldfarb racks his brain as to why New York food critics slammed his “A Day At The Beach” dessert, which is composed of salt water mist, pastry cream soda with crispy ham, grapefruit gel with beer, and carbonated fat served on a slice of terrycloth towel...can you blame them? Goldfarb flees town and resettles in Bali, where he now serves similarly avant garde dishes (alongside “Beach") at Room4Dessert. With cheeky titles such as “Chocobubbles 4Evah” to “Sometimes Laughter is the Best Medicine”, I can’t help but wonder if these names were selected in attempts to make them seem more delightful than they appear.

Volume 3, Episode 2, Vladimir Mukhin: At White Rabbit in Moscow, Vladimir Mukhin seeks to revive long lost recipes of traditional Russian cuisine with an upscale, modern approach. We walk through his interpretation of dishes such as his grandmother’s honey cake effortlessly, but when we begin to venture into the crux of his main menu, I must admit I got a bit lost (spoiler alert: moose tongue dumplings). Nonetheless, this episode is another strong case of Chef’s Table illustrating how food—even on such a high-end level—can be a direct reflection of history and culture (and also in this case, politics). Just be ready to close your eyes and skip to the next episode if you are particularly squeamish.

Volume 1, Episode 6, Magnuss Nilsson: Nestled in the frigid town of Järpen in northern Sweden, chef Magnuss Nilsson flips Nordic cuisine on its head at Fäviken. Faced with the challenge of cooking with local ingredients in a region where nothing grows for six months out of the year, alongside the challenge of having a restaurant in such a remote, inaccessible area, Nilsson’s approach is nothing short of fantastical. To even be able to get to his restaurant is a luxury, so by nature, the food seems just as inaccessible as well. When he’s not seen lashing out at his team over carrot flakes, Magnuss actually has a really cool view on food. But with such farfetched set-up, this episode is hard to enjoy without recognizing its over-the-top nature.

Volume 3, Episode 6, Virgilio Martinez: “More than five drops will make you purge” Malena Martinez, head of the research, warns her brother Virgilio of the mysterious substance in his hands. We spend the first few minutes of this episode with the siblings tasting, documenting, and collecting curious pieces of a forest. At Central, in Lima, Martinez implements such samples into edible ecosystems to reinterpret the diverse landscapes that make up Peru. Martinez seeks to achieve this concept so much that taste can come second, one critic warning that “[Central is not] about food that is tasty—sometimes it’s uncomfortable.” Ingredients used on the ever-changing menu can range from tree bark resin to balls of green algae (“caviar”). These dishes are undeniably beautiful, and admittedly evolved my understanding of how a dining experience can be used more than just to satisfy through nourishment and taste. Martinez “paints the landscape on the plate.” Much like some art, however, these pieces might be hard to digest without an open mind.

Volume 1, Episode 2, Dan Barber: I thought I understood Dan Barber. At Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns upstate, his focus on showcasing the highest quality ingredients in their purest form seems enticing. What might seem like an obvious, accessible concept is hard to find in actuality at his level, especially in American cuisine. Barber’s deep understanding of the symbiotic relationships in farming and consequential focus on sustainability is aspirational; out of all the restaurants showcased in Chef’s Table, dining at Blue Hill would fall at the top of my list. But even I couldn’t help but giggle a bit when specific dishes were shown. By attempting to capture the actual dining experience into this episode, something gets lost in translation. The food is served in such a straightforward, minimalist manner that it might be hard to fully appreciate and respect his approach through the screen. Unless you want to write off this series altogether, definitely save this episode for when you are more accustomed to the show.

Volume 2, Episode 1, Grant Achatz: At Alinea in Chicago, Grant Achatz seeks to curate experiences through playful, high-end dishes that turn the usual restaurant experience on its head. This premise is exciting in theory, but a bit ridiculous in execution. My favorite (and one that initially inspired the concept of this article) is a plate that is served on a pillow filled with a scent, where every time the pressure is applied to the dish, a puff of scented air permeates the diner’s senses from the pillow. Another example is a simpler dish composed of two objects entitled “Strawberry/Tomato,” where what appears to be a strawberry is actually made of tomato and vice versa. Even Achatz admits that “without the [visual trick]...why would [anyone] pay $500 for this?” The new levels of ridiculousness that the Alinea team manages to reach in their preoccupation with reinventing the wheel was a bit too self-aware to me, and limited the translation of the experience to Chef’s Table. I’m sure that dining at Alinea IRL would be mind-blowing if I could afford it (Jackson Pollock-esque dessert, anyone?) but I couldn’t help but chuckle my way through the majority of this episode.

Volume 1, Episode 3, Francis Mallmann: Deep down in the southernmost tip of South America, after 100 miles of dirt road and an hour long boat ride, you will come across a cabin on a very remote island in Patagonia, Argentina. It is here were we sit down with chef Francis Mallmann, whose grand notions of love, freedom, and food paint a highly fantastical and pretentious caricature (he explains his obsession of cooking on an open flame, for example, through an extensive metaphor about making love). For the majority of this episode, we see him cozied up to a fire amongst the vast, empty landscape, swaddled in a huge, distracting blanket and wearing an equally distracting hat. It is hard to take him seriously. Eccentric in mannerisms and extremely romantic by nature, this profile is one long 49 minute eye roll, albeit cushioned with the usual beautiful visuals of landscape and food. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.