It has been years since a cooking show could get by with merely demonstrating how to prepare a particular dish, but these days a lot of entries in the genre are tarted up absurdly.
“Chef’s Table,” an elegant six-part docuseries now offered on Netflix, goes refreshingly in the opposite direction, rediscovering simplicity in much the same way that the chefs it profiles have rediscovered local ingredients and traditional methods.
There are no hokey competitions or artificial deadlines here. Just chefs with vision, from all over the world, talking about what they’re trying to accomplish and why.
Each episode concentrates on a single chef. There is, for instance, Ben Shewry, whose restaurant, Attica, in Melbourne, Australia, is considered one of the best in the world. Yes, he talks about food and ingredients, but he also talks about philosophy and formative experiences.
He recalls nearly drowning as a child — “having salt water stuffed down your throat and up in your nose, and being held under by a force far greater than you” — and how it led to a cooking epiphany.
“I wanted to create a dish which invoked that sensation in somebody who was eating it,” he says, “which is kind of macabre.”
The resulting dish, which he called Sea Tastes, “was the first time I was really proud of something that I’d cooked that wasn’t a knockoff.”
That kind of conversation, creative culinary geniuses trying, with only partial success, to put their craft into words, abounds in “Chef’s Table,” whose other chefs are Massimo Bottura, Dan Barber, Francis Mallmann, Niki Nakayama and Magnus Nilsson. So do some food-show cliches. Sauce can’t just be dribbled onto a dish, it’s dribbled in slow motion. But food looks great.
And each chef is different, not only in foods and restaurants but also in philosophy.
“People can’t create anything truly significant in food unless they’re happy when they do it,” Shewry says, but Barber seems less at peace.
“Because of the drudgery and the hours and the exhaustion that this kind of work demands, it does attract people who are attracted to a certain kind of abuse,” he said. “It’s exhilarating, and the challenge is sort of ‘How much of it can you stand?’ And is that the way to live a happy life? I don’t have the answer to that at all.”