A cooking show that’s not about food. That’s the premise behind Chef’s Table, Netflix’s documentary series, back for a third helping. Taking us on a tour of top chefs around the world and revealing the recipe for their success, it’s a quietly bold departure from the norm. Only in Chef’s Table could you be halfway up a mountain in South Korean talking about fermentation with a monk. The Great British Bake Off, this ain’t.
For though who have devoured the eclectic menu on offer, Chef’s Table is a delicious morsel. Under the watch of Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb, the show is consistently one of the most beautiful things you’ll see on television: it’s elevated food porn to an art form, and treats its subjects as such, ogling them in the most tasteful, respectful way possible. Recipes? They don’t matter, the show tells us. Just look at what’s on that plate.
By placing its stock in character over culinary explanation, Chef’s Table’s success inevitably depends on the choice of its chef in each episode. Season 1 was notably uneven – although even the weakest episode in Chef’s Table is still mouth-watering stuff – while Season 2’s picks occasionally failed to live up to the praise bestowed upon them. But Season 3, judging by the episodes made available to preview, has perfected the balance of personal and professional palates. Its selection of chefs has never been more inspiring, mind-boggling or entertaining.
In Berlin, we’re introduced to Tim Raue, the man behind the 34th best restaurant in the world. He sweeps between the steel counters with a stern expression, criticising almost everything he sees with a blunt air. But this is no man born with a silver spoon in his mouth: Tim, we discover, grew up in the nasty part of the German capital, a gang member who found his way into the kitchen almost by accident, as a form of solace and escapism. That fighting spirit defines everything he does, from the way he battled up the chain of command, Frank Underwood-style, in his first restaurant to the manner in which he fillets a cod – defiantly sticking a finger up to the conventional way of cutting fish.
This is where Chef’s Table really whets your appetite: the programme has honed its seasoning to the point where it can sprinkle just enough know-how into the episode to explain both what normal food preparation is like and how this individual differs. It’s informative, but never at the cost of being engaging. We hear quotes from critics slagging off Tim’s food, his attempts to try something new and his habit of heavily spicing everything; then we get Tim’s explanation of why he doesn’t believe in subtle flavours. “It’s so spicy, it’s like being punched in the face,” observes one talking head.
Subtlety is certainly never the aim of Chef’s Table, with its continuing use of Max Richter’s glorious variation on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and its montages that make most Instagram photos look like drawings in Microsoft Paint. But Season 3 may well change your opinion on that, serving up one of its most gentle, delicate dishes yet. That comes courtesy of South Korea’s Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun who cooks not in the highly-charged atmosphere of an urban kitchen, but in the tranquil environment of the Baekyasa Temple, just south of Seoul.
That sense of quiet permeates every part of the hour. From the slow-moving camera to the music, which feels driven by Kwan’s character, the way in which Chef’s Table customises its presentation to fit the course at hand has rarely been so evident, or felt so natural. Again, there’s a gentle combination of technical knowledge and idiosyncratic ideology, as Kwan explains to us that she doesn’t use onion, garlic or any of the five most pungent spices. Not because of how they taste, but because they are so strong that could interfere with a monk’s spirit of calmness. The result is what she calls “Temple Food”, cuisine designed to nourish the soul of the monks she feeds.
Chef’s Table takes her out of that context to show just how revolutionary that approach is – watching people in New York react to Kwan’s cooking is a delight in itself. But it’s in adopting her meditative tone that the programme really makes your belly rumble. It’s almost a philosophical statement rather than a cooking show, talking about fermentation in terms of creating new life and using time as an method in its own right; seeds growing over many months are just as much a part of Kwan’s cooking as her own personal history, which saw her become a practising nun at the age of 17. That study of how a chef’s environment uniquely influences them is at the core of Chef’s Table’s best meals. From the aggressive, multicultural stylings of Berlin’s most notorious chef to the universe guiding a woman’s foraging hands, Season 3 is the most diverse – and the most genuinely remarkable – Chef’s Table to date. As the show’s tastes become more varied, they boil down Netflix’s documentary to its simplest essence. It may not teach you how to fry a fish, but it makes you appreciate the value of even the most unassuming ingredients. “Soy sauce makes me excited just thinking about it,” says Kwan, with a smile. You’re inclined to agree.
Season 1 to 3 of Chef’s Table are available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
Photos: Courtesy of Netflix