Cards on the Table
A room in a humourless Michelin-star restaurant in St Helena, California; and a server’s nasal voice is boring into your skull like a tiny-gauge diamond-bit drill. She is repeating a word that you had forgotten existed in this specific context, had never heard seriously uttered like this. The word is Chef, and it is being used as a proper noun. Chef has prepared a number of specials for your enjoyment tonight. Chef recommends sharing two or three of the smaller plates before an entrée apiece. Chef’s miso brulee salmon comes especially highly recommended. So pleased you enjoyed it! I’ll be sure to tell Chef.
Chef’s Table, which recently disgorged its third or fourth series onto Netlfix like a sturgeon undergoing seppuku, can’t escape Chef as a proper noun. The title is of course a play on the supposedly intimate dining experiences that rich men from Manchester bestow upon their wives and lesser-cocked male friends for vast sums of money, as though the false bonhomie of Marcus Wareing bought for three hundred quid a head is a sign you’ve made it. But this is misdirection: really, under the surface, it’s always been a show in horrid stale veneration of the cult of Chef-as-proper-noun, table-as-altar; a show that has treated biography like an ingredient in a recipe, a blinkered top-down view of life-altering moments stacked on top of each other like profiteroles in a croquembouche, all of them adding up to each episode’s identical pornographic-scopophilic climax shuddering along to orgasmic orchestration as a procession of Instagram-gorgeous money shots dot the wooden surface of whichever table whichever Chef has blessed us with a seat at.
The show’s reluctance to scrutinise itself, its subjects, its raison d’être; to ponder whether this formula might be becoming rote after nearly two-score episodes; its haste in discarding the caulfat of knotty, interesting questions that surround it as an enterprise like a butcher shearing to prime cuts in the 1990s – it’s all, by now, ridiculous. Programming of its ilk has been skewered by the sublime Juan Likes Rice and Chicken more savagely than any morsel at a haute yakitori-ya; chronologically, figuratively, it is beyond parody; it ploughs on regardless.
There is another Chef’s Table somewhere, in a parallel universe where we deserve nice things. It is a show that is not dedicated to the uncomplicated hagiography of Chef, and his Table; it concerns itself with the tensions inherent in its subjects; it makes the most of the access it has obtained. It is this show’s Other, Netflix’s abjection, a repository of all the weird, uncomfortable, genuinely interesting things that David Gelb has cast off from his production line.
In episode one of its third or fourth season, this other show actually does something with the fact that Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist monk, and examines the affinities – the long hours, the dedication, the boredom – between being a Buddhist monk in the hills of South Korea and a fancy-ass New York chef. But – because it’s a good show, this one – it goes a step further. It asks about the role of presentation, and whether part of Kwan’s appeal for the Americans who ship her over to the East Coast like King Kong to entertain their close friends is how her food still fits into a recognisable Chef’s Table (Instagram) filter; when it discovers that this isn’t the case – that it is, in fact, all about the mythic quality of the food – it pivots and asks questions about how Kwan’s self-imposed constraints (no meat, and no leeks, onions or garlic, inter alia allia) run up against the maximalism of a Gaggan Anand, or run alongside the New Nordic austerity of a Rene Redzepi, or run into the artificial sort-of-constraints halfheartedly imposed by Alain Passard. It concludes by asking a slightly troubling question: if she weren’t Buddhist, weren’t Korean, didn’t live up in the hills – if she were, say, a 60-year old vegan pensioner fermenting stuff just as deliciously in her kitchen in Brighton – would anyone care? Is she really just a cool story?
Episode two of the other Chef’s Table, focused on Vladimir Mukhin, also uses that footage of glasnost-era queues outside McDonald's. But it instead interrogates the hypothesis that Mukhin is doing something fresh and new when really his approach has been commoditised and packaged up by the food media (precisely by shows like Chef's Table, actually) for the consumption of a snaking line of food tourists gagging for that authentic locavore taste with cutesy modernist presentation: it argues, in fact, that at White Rabbit, he's serving 200-dollars-a-head Happy Meals. Fewer chefs like Mukhin sign up for series four or five, but really how many more of them do you need to see?
We should all pause for breath before episode three, because it has a lot it needs to ask. It starts with what the Americans call a soft toss – an entry-level starter for ten – about privilege, and Los Angeles, and Cal-Italian food more widely, and Chez Panisse and Sqirl and the whole sickmaking whitewashed myth about buying your morning bread from cute little bakeries and your week’s produce from a farmers’ market. But it doesn’t spend long on that point, because it’s found a more interesting thread: it looks at Osteria Mozza and Chez Panisse and Zuni Café and observes all were opened by women, and dwells long and hard on Nancy Silverton’s line “I get to socialise but I also get to create”, and her baffled embarrassment at winning the James Beard award for Best Chef, and her insistence that it should have gone to her (male) mentor (“I’m not imaginative”), and it stops to ask a simple question: are we OK with this? That Nancy Silverton, James Beard Chef of the Year 2014, is still dismissed by a (male) critic as someone making “pizza, pasta and salads”; that her food is celebrated by a (male) chef as the food that Massimo Bottura, Grant Achatz, Rene Redzepi – read: proper chefs – really want to eat when they’re not out doing impossible Difficult Man things to ingredients in a way that no woman should (could) want to? That if you put it in slightly different terms we’d be mired in a profoundly 1950s swap of gender politics: the man leaving the home to pioneer, to create, to make it new; the woman staying by the hearth, baking her bread, making sure her man has something nourishing to eat – something he really wants to eat – when he comes back from the difficult job of changing the world?
Look – I could go on. I could do the same for the remaining three episodes, not less the weird racial politics of the Ivan Orkin / Tim Raue double feature, white dudes preaching about how cool Asian food is and holding up living in a foreign country like a badge of honour. But it’d be even more of a waste of time than bingeing this bad, boring, simplistic show, like I did, in a weekend.
The Orkin and Raue episodes do at least provide a template for where the show might go next, if it actually wanted to be good. Both dudes (still dudes, alas) are what you might call edge cases – one a lovable weirdo; one, transparently, a total prick. But they are interesting people, who despite immense trauma (and their totally divergent personalities and ways of treating people in their lives) have found a measure of peace in the kitchen. Everyone in this series has found this peace, actually – even if they are striving for that third star or fifth toque or infinitesimal bump up the Top 50 list, all of these people have found something at which they excel, and which they love doing. Nothing has ever successfully explained to me how, or why. I don’t care about Chef, or his stupid fucking Table. I care about a cook, and a kitchen, and what keeps them there, in spite of everything.