I fucking love watching other people’s food. Other people making it, other people eating it, Gordon Ramsay throwing it across the kitchen — whatever I’m watching, I’m here for it. There’s something elemental, visceral, almost primal about a high-definition camera capturing a knife mid-chiffonade, or the crackling sear of a steak laid down (away from you) into a hot skillet, or even the professionally trained hand trivially beating a few eggs in a glass bowl.
At this point, though, the current wave of “food porn” programming is the easiest possible target for satire. (It’s a wonder it took so long for “Documentary Now!” to produce its famous “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” episode.) Indeed, some of the videos you can find on YouTube of celebrity chefs veer into outright self-parody. But whatever the current cultural backlash to foodie culture is — and, believe me, I’m here for that, too — “Chef’s Table” remains a staunchly engaging program, often interested less in actual content than a purely aesthetic overwhelming of the senses.
And how overwhelming it is! Artful lighting, slow-motion shots, raucously overbearing classical scores, heartfelt testimonials from “food scholars” — it’s all still there, and it’s all still eye-rollingly pretentious, depending on who you ask. But as pure sensory experience, “Chef’s Table” is unmatched, inimitable. Even in its third season (“Chef’s Table: France” is technically considered a spin-off), creator David Gelb’s (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) series stirs something in the soul, some deeply buried desire to create. It’s enough to suck you deep into your 13-inch Macbook Pro’s full screen, only to be taken out moments later by earnestly delivered lines like: “Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.”
Of course, none of these profiled chefs are particularly accessible for the average Netflix consumer. Jeong Kwan, profiled in the third season premiere, is a Buddhist nun at a hermitage in South Korea whose life’s purpose, it seems, is to cook “temple food;” the second episode focuses on Vladimir Mukhin, a Russian chef whose Moscow restaurant White Rabbit is at the vanguard of the country’s culinary renaissance; the famous and highly influential Nancy Silverton is featured, too, with particular focus given to her borderline manic obsession with bread.
But the show’s new season should be commended, if not for a diversity of pricing, then for a wider scope of global cuisines. Kwan’s manipulation of ingredients is utterly fascinating and beautifully rendered, and all the more impressive considering her diet eschews all meat and dairy. Mukhin’s episode doubles as an illuminating bit of cultural anthropology, as his growth as a chef is intertwined with a modern history of Soviet Russia and some of its lesser known effects.
Yet these narratives ultimately play second fiddle to what is, at a base level, “Chef’s Table” ’s peerless visual mastery. Blessed with Netflix’s generously high production values, Gelb has perfected the art form—and, truly, food television deserves its own categorization now. What seemed fresh and energizing in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” has come to the logical end of its aesthetic evolution: The way we capture food on screen has been irrevocably altered, and for the better. It’s a niche and somewhat culturally elitist sphere, to be sure, but taken solely at its artful merits, “Chef’s Table” has become the paragon of America’s obsession with food. One can quibble, as I often do, that other programs provide a more enriching experience (see: Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”), but for what it is and what it has become, “Chef’s Table” is without an equal.