Chef’s Table presents a strong argument for the “elevation of food,” which is a phrase that is freely bandied around by foodies and even the chefs and establishments creating these meals (or experiences as many of the chefs are compelled to describe them as) — and that’s not to say it’s wrong. What Chef’s Table does, however, is actually argue for what that means and why it’s important and worth spending our time thinking about it. What is the role of food in our society, beyond sustenance? Why do we eat in the ways that we eat? Can food be better, socially? Chef’s Table poses the questions and lets us find our own answers.
The six-episode series premiered its second season at the end of May. Within minutes, the show quickly upsets the first season by going further than where the first season only touched: Chef’s Table, now, interrogates the role of food in our society, globally and locally, and finally asks us to interrogate our own feelings and thoughts about how and why we eat what we eat. The first season was wonder; this season is application. The series is slated for four seasons currently and it’s hard to imagine where it will go after season two: It’s already so ambitious and clearly interested in so much more than just pretty food.
The first episode, the most sensational, completely deconstructs food with Grant Achatz. It’s the perfect opening and the perfect tone to distance itself from the first season. It asks a question: why does food have to come on a plate? It’s breathtaking to watch Achatz work both in and outside of the kitchen and it’s all a powerful statement from the series: what good is food that doesn’t look like food? Does it have value? Achatz compares it to modern art; why are there paintings? Why is food different? An important question is posed in the first season from Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant: How important is the concept of fine dining? It’s not achievable by most people and it’s certainly not how anyone eats regularly (even the chefs are filmed eating burgers and fries), so why do it? Why have fine dining? Is there something redeemable in the experience? Barber hoped, with his restaurant’s focus on sustainability and food quality, it would sort of trickle down into society and slowly change the food culture generally: No more processed foods, no more ingredient ignorance, et cetera. Achatz, however, simply believes in the transcendence of experience; transformative moments and the power of food to provide those.
"But if caviar is fancy, and tucupi (the juice of the manioc root) is not fancy, it’s just because someone told me."
The series reminds me of an essay written for Life & Thyme, wherein the author couldn’t, no matter how hard she tried, break through her immigrant mother-in-law’s cold demeanor toward her. However, one day she invited her over to talk and get to know her and she prepared all of these dishes from her mother-in-law’s childhood and home — as soon as the food was ready, the mother-in-law smelled it and then tasted it, and completely opened up; her cold demeanor melted away. Both her and her husband learned things about her and their family’s history they had never known before and it was because of that long moment smelling and then seeing and then touching and tasting the food: their relationship was cemented and the husband’s relationship with his mother was reinvigorated, strengthened anew. Food, sharing a meal, opened that door.Why?
Dominique Crenn, in the third episode, says over and over “This is my home; if you’re going to come into my home, you have to talk to me.” She can’t imagine another use, another reason for her food than dialogue:eating is easy, sustenance is easy; what’s the use in food? Why gather around a table? For Crenn, the act of gathering is the important part. The table is her home. In a way, she is more of a host at her restaurant than a cook — her goal is to bring people together and to get them to tell their own stories through her food. Achatz creates food-that-is-not-food and Alex Atala, the chef featured in the second episode, creates Brazilian food, but Crenn recreates a memory: Something hazy and nostalgic, something that presses against your own memory and you just have to talk about it.
A friend and I were eating oysters and the oyster bar had Sewensecott oysters, from very near where my friend grew up. He ate one and told me it reminded him of drowning: Grim, but then he revealed that the oyster tasted like the water where he and his family vacationed and how, as a child, he would carelessly swim around in the Atlantic Ocean — one time he was caught in an undertow, but it wasn’t particularly strong so, though momentarily terrifying, he was able to get back to the beach. He wondered aloud then about parenting now versus how his parents acted, and how he was allowed to swim without supervision and how he had to save himself without help from an adult (which was not meant to be an indictment of his parents). He prefers to eat Sewensecott oysters plain, without a cracker or hot sauce or citrus.
What does “elevating food” mean? What does it mean for one cuisine to be “better” than another? Can food or a dish be revered? Should it be? Chef’s Table doesn’t spend the entirety of season two pondering this. While it does concern itself with the why of eating, it also looks at food politically: specifically, what it means to value food.
Atala in the second episode and then the last three chefs in this season are all focused on creating food that is quintessentially their cuisine: Atala makes Brazilian food, Enrique Olvera makes Mexican food, Ana Ros makes Slovenian food and Gaggan Anand makes Indian food. Each of these chefs is nearly obsessed with what it means to serve their native food and, more importantly, to value the food and the experience so highly. Atala says, “But if caviar is fancy, and tucupi (the juice of the manioc root) is not fancy, it’s just because someone told me.” He serves ants and the episode explores where these ants are from and why they are eaten — taste is subjective; source is subjective; experience is subjective: does “elevating food” mean anything when the simple fact is that anything can be eaten? Anything can be good? Olvera serves tacos at his fine dining restaurant. The absolute pinnacle of street food — cheap, quickly made, readily available — and he says that tacos are perfect. Chef’s Table shows the chefs’ hesitations and illuminates their internal discussions about whether something deserves to be served, but, as Olvera explains, tacos are perfect and perfectly suited to fine dining: the small dish doesn’t look out of place at all once plated and it doesn’t take on any modern form to make it acceptable. It’s a taco on a plate.
Each chef brings a new perspective and, while it is easy to categorize each episode into a broad genre, each one is so important in the overall narrative that Chef’s Table is presenting. After finishing the season, I can’t really think about the season, or even the series so far, without comparing and contrasting and applying each new piece of information to what I already know. The first season was phenomenal and beautiful and the second season really outdoes that: The beautiful cinematography is still there, but often I forgot about it. Whereas I was expecting it in the first season, I was completely distracted by the content of each episode and the message of each chef in season two that I forgot there would be these beautiful images of plated dishes. What does “elevating food” mean? “Chef’s Table” offers no clear answers, but season two is an important contribution to the discussion.
- Gelb, David, creator. Chef’s Table. Season 2. Directed by Brian McGinn, Clay Jeter, Andrew Fried, Abigail Fuller, and David Gelb, featuring Grant Achatz, Alex Atala, Dominique Crenn, Enrique Olvera, Ana Roš, and Gaggan Anand. Aired May 27, 2016. Netflix, 2016, Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/title/80007945.
- Phillips, Carolyn. "Good Graces: A Memory Shared. A Memory Made." Life & Thyme. https://lifeandthyme.com/food/reflections/good-graces.