Wait. Before you go any further, eat something. Before you watch Chef’s Table, before you read this review, before you even think about reading something to do with Netflix’s new food documentary, get something in your belly. Because this series is guaranteed to do one thing: make you really, really hungry.
“One day, me and Taka – my sous chef – were serving the last two lemon tarts…” begins Massimo Bottura, from Modena’s Osteria Francescana.
Netflix’s new original series comes hot on the heels of Daredevil, a comic book thriller about a blind lawyer who fights crime in New York. They couldn’t be more different: this is the kind of show you’d expect to find on a terrestrial channel, before heading online to stream some superheroics. One has special powers. The other has citrus pastries.
But Chef’s Table arrives at a curious time for the food world: chef’s have become superhero-like celebrities in their own right, using their seemingly-magical gifts to host reality TV shows, write books and even (in the case of Gordon Ramsay) appearing in feature films. Food isn’t just something we eat: it’s a whole culture to be consumed. And director David Gelb, who recently brought us Jiro Dreams of Sushi, takes a huge bite out of it: this is a programme about those who make the meals as much as the meals themselves.
Divided into six episodes, each one follows a different chef; a structure that proves vital to sustaining your appetite, as its tastes change to fit the person in front of the camera.
There’s Ben Shewry, who runs Attica in Melbourne – a place where people find it hard to believe that the world’s 32nd best restaurant could possibly exist. After all, he grew up with no chefs on TV. Equally unlikely seems Magnus Nilsson, whose stomping ground in Järpen, Sweden, is home to his restaurant, Fäviken. “People ask if the menu is seasonal,” he says, before pointing out that for most of spring everything is frozen.
The journey each one has taken to become a successful cook is the main focus of each episode: a 30-minute origins story for each superhero and what drives them, as well as a brief rundown of their major enemies and abilities. For Niki Nakayama, who runs the N/Naka Restaurant in Los Angeles, it’s a tale of overcoming sexism from her family and colleagues, as well as the wider industry. They even have a word in Japan for putting people down, she explains.
The focus upon the characters behind the cuisine means that some episodes are less involving then others: Dan Barber, for example, whose Blue Hill restaurant in New York produces local farm-based dishes, has an inherently less dramatic story than Francis Mallmann, from Argentina, who credits his falling in love with food to naked women inviting him to have a drink as a child. He rhapsodises at length about cooking great slabs of meat on an open flame – “fire goes from 1 to 10” – before describing in detail the crust that forms from such a burn-loving approach. (It’s enough to get you salivating.)
“I wanted to do whatever I wanted,” he adds, as he drinks wine served to him in a boat.
But the variety of the menu is the secret to its largely entertaining palette. Gelb assembles his courses like a Great British Bake Off contestant decorating a mini-cupcake: with style and precisely observed detail. Montages of dishes flurry past at the conclusion of each chapter, lit up like the Mona Lisa on a global catwalk, representing the artistic culmination of everything that has gone before. All the while, overtly grand classical pieces (think Beethoven and Prokofiev, as well as Silas Hite’s original compositions) accompany close-ups of spectacles, hands and slow-motion serving suggestions. The credits even open with a time-lapse sequence of people rushing through a kitchen, accompanied by Max Richter’s playful reworking of Vivaldi.
That air of artistic freedom and creativity, of taking tradition and giving it a fresh twist, is at its best when the plates and people collide, giving you an insight not just into how a dish is developed but why it could only have been conceived by one person.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that this occurs most in the very final episode, as Massimo explains how he used his experimental cookery as a wider social gesture in the wake of the 2012 Emilia-Romagna earthquakes. Or as he amusingly recalls how his sous chef, Taka, dropped one of the day’s final puddings in the kitchen – an accident they turn to their advantage by inventing a new, splattered dessert called “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart”.
The fun food names don’t stop there (“A Potato Waiting to Become a Truffle” is a highlight) but even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy edible puns, the show will have your stomach hooked with its endless parade of tasty morsels.
And yet many subscribers may not even sample Chef’s Table. After all, this is Netflix: the home of Breaking Bad, not accidental baking. But that’s exactly the point. A frothy blend of food porn and fascinating humans, this is arguably a more mature recipe than many Netflix originals. It sits alongside the streaming giant’s ever-expanding spice rack of documentary features, the kind of thing that you’d expect to find on Channel 4 or BBC Two on a weeknight. It’s a treat to savour, not to binge on. In that sense, Chef’s Table is perhaps Netflix’s most exciting commission to date: it’s a step towards the VOD service becoming a more rounded, traditional TV network. There’s a mouth-watering thought, indeed.
All six episodes of Chef’s Table are released on Netflix UK on Sunday 26th April.
Photos: Courtesy of Netflix