“Christina is a uniquely American chef. She’s not trying to be French, she’s not running off to Japan. She is America, and America’s delicious.” That’s one culinary expert at the start of Chef’s Table: Pastry, and it gets right to heart of what makes the new season of Netflix’s food documentary so mouth-wateringly effective, even if it’s not always intentional.
David Gelb’s programme is one of Netflix’s most underrated shows, combining stunning food photography with inspiring human drama, showing us not only what amazing dishes the world’s best chefs can concoct, but why and how they came do so. It’s two parts chef to one part table, and all the better for it.
After three seasons, and a spin-off devoted to French cuisine, we’ve seen everything from flame-grilled meat in South America and delicately cut fish in Japan to restaurants that have U-turned from carnivorous delights to 100% vegetarian artworks. And so this new run takes a refreshing, delicious detour into lighter territory: the world of pastry chefs.
It’s an arena that has typically been led by successful women, a welcome change to the more male-dominated food world, so it’s a shame to see Netflix’s series, which is so au fait with what goes on behind kitchen doors, serve up three episodes out of four focused on male cooks.
There’s some variety between this male trio, at least. In Italy, we meet Corrado Assenza of Noto’s Caffè Sicilia, a king of cannoli, a gelato purist and a genius with granita. He’s crafted a sweet shop that dances with brioche and almonds to delicate, delectable effect.
His work is unassuming in comparison to the more ambitious Spanish chef Jordi Roca, of Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca. Roca, though, didn’t start out wanting to be a chef, with his brothers Josep and Joan being the foodies in their family. After starting as a waiter, it was only later that he had to move to the other side of the counter, and, as the youngest of the brothers, was given the desserts to handle, while they took care of the rest. Over time, though, he found himself, admitting he needed to study and going on to experiment with the use of aromas. Watching him work offers an interesting insight into how air and other ingredients can be used to transform ice cream: Roca introduces cigar smoke to the freezing process to make a Cuban-themed dessert, or uses sheep’s milk to freeze the time he spent with his young nephew.
A man who needs no introduction to ambition, however, is Will Goldfarb, who hopped from El Bulli to New York with fame and success in his sights. He produced flourishing, experimental desserts, with syringes, mini beach scenes, handcuffs and more – with the kind of overdone arrogance (onion ice cubes are mentioned) that soured people against him. Fallings out with other chefs over his notoriety and bad reviews led to unemployment and a crisis in confidence. It was only when he moved to Indonesia, away from the pressure cooker of New York, that he found peace and simple pleasures with Room 4 Dessert in Ubud.
Goldfarb’s episode is almost worth watching first to highlight how much ego can distort a career – and how much of a stark contrast that is to the best thing on the season’s menu: Christina Tosi. Tosi needs little introduction to those who have heard of Milk Bar in New York. But Chef’s Table: Pastry doesn’t just celebrate her success: it reveals how little she’s driven by it.
Tosi is brilliantly talented, and even more enthusiastic, entering the world of pastry simply due to a love of desserts, and eating things that make you happy. But that energy and optimism hides a precise skill, a deft hand and a keen eye for new things. She’s a pioneer of unfrosted cakes, even for weddings, preferring to put the frosting and surprising toppings inside the layers of filling rather than the outside. And she’s a master of subtle flavours, using cereal milk to make a panna cotta that recaptures the nostalgia of childhood.
It’s always in service not of fame but of fun, with her signature dish – the Crack Pie – stemming from randomly whipping something up for her family. That won her the support of David Chang, of Momofoku, who hired her to bring desserts to his menu, and ultimately led to her forming her own venture, Milk Bar. If there’s a disappointing lack of focus on Tosi’s studying at the French Culinary Institute, there’s a welcome chance to see her outside of the kitchen (this season partly gets its lighter tone by venturing away from the hob more than previous runs) and appreciate the difference in her attitude towards cooking. Chang, for example, is only too happy to see Tosi eclipse his own success, if it means her desserts get a chance to shine – a point that drives home the gender skew of this mini-series, but also makes her story all the sweeter. Save Tosi’s episode for a cheerful final course, and you’ll wind up wishing there were more of her in the world – not least because that would mean more Crack Pie for everyone.
Chef’s Table: Pastry is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
Photos: Courtesy of Netflix