“When we’re born, we have a limited ability to perceive flavour,” says chef Grant Achatz in the second season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. “As you get older, you become able to discern more, but you’re young enough not to remember it.”
The documentary series, which first hit our tables back in 2014, feasts on those kind of observations, as it continues its versatile menu of beautiful dishes and behind-the-scenes insights into the cooks that make them.
Chefs, of course, are far from a foreign presence on our screens: from Jamie Oliver to Mary Berry, we’re used to seeing culinary prodigies as TV personalities. While we get to know their tastes and whims, though, they’re usually kept behind the barrier of a game show contest, as they judge other people’s cooking, or the kitchen counter, as they talk us through their recipes. When we are offered personal insights, it’s normally a single chef’s life stretched out over several weeks – after all, it can’t get in the way of our quality chopping board time.
Chef’s Table, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with how-to guides or handy tips – a format that feels more unique as the series goes on. Every episode, we get a different chef’s back-story, diced into digestible chunks and blitzed with shots of them at work, a versatility that keeps its emotions fresh and its creations intangible and magical.
The show, overseen by director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), selects its stars like a connoisseur choosing a wine – each note compliments the rest of the flavours, ensuring that you keep coming back for another sip. Dominique Crenn, who runs Atelier Crenn, was the first female chef to earn two Michelin stars, a fact that makes her a more than deserving subject. Alex Atala, who runs Dom in Brazil, made waves by opening a restaurant in his home country that celebrated national cuisine, rather than those of other countries.
But it’s their personal motivation to cook rather than their achievements that make them so interesting. Atala is fuelled by an urge to reclaim his country’s cuisine, something that Brazilians don’t tend to consider as “restaurant food”. People think of tapioca as Asiatic, he notes, but it’s not. We see him go on the hunt for domestic ingredients, the kind of sight that’s conventional in cooking programmes, but here becomes a genuine journey of discovery – ants, he learns, taste of ginger and lemongrass, while Brazilian honey is more acidic than European honey, which gives it a different flavour.
“These are ingredients we should be proud of,” he declares.
Dominique’s drive is just as personal, as she reveals that her restaurant isn’t named after her, but her dad – the presentation of a forest-themed dish, complete with walking stick inspired by her father’s country walks, is as sweet as it is stunning.
There’s an inspiring note to that creativity, too, which stems from collaboration as much as individual effort; both Crenn and Grant Achatz (who runs Chicago’s Alinea, Next, and The Aviary) highlight the importance of being given the freedom to create. When Grant calls for volunteers to make a dish that floats, a hand from his team shoots in the air without hesitation to take on the challenge. Achatz, in particular, is great fun to witness in action, as he comes up with increasingly insane ideas: Strawberry/Tomato feeds guests a strawberry and a tomato, but each one is made to look like the other, so customers don’t taste what they expect. Another dessert places a canvas on the table and paints it with sauce and meringue. Achatzs is talented, entertaining and bonkers, not to mention a nightmare for anyone who supports the We Want Plates campaign.
The latter dish is a real showstopper, a reminder of just how jaw-dropping the programme is. The visuals are gorgeous throughout every episode, from the close-ups of food preparation to the montages of people bustling through kitchens; you can freeze any frame and it’s a gorgeous piece of art in its own right. The soundtrack matches the camerawork; Max Richter’s reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons remains in place, while bird noises and other sounds subtly fade in over the top of nature-themed meals.
Together, that mix of sentiment and style is enough to make anyone drool – and the show’s production team gets better and better at getting the mix right. Even moments that are clearly staged (family reunions and chefs looking ponderous, as colleagues move around them) ring with truth, with the series increasingly unafraid to explore the serious drama of its subjects’ lives. Grant, we’re told, was diagnosed with cancer at one stage in his career, causing him to lose all sense of taste – a challenge that forced him to create new dishes in his head and trust other people to realise them. In the process of getting better, he rediscovered his appreciation of flavours. Netflix’s series manages to do the same. Chef’s Table may not teach you how to make all things you see, but it leaves you savouring every morsel. This isn’t just food porn; it’s food porn you want to marry and take home to meet your parents.
Chef’s Table Season 1 and 2 are available to watch online exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix