Chef’s Table: Season 2

Chef’s Table Season 2 visits a chef who wants to save the Amazon, a woman who against her intended path in life elevates her home country’s cuisine, a chef who redefines French cooking in her adopted home town, a chef who reinvents Indian food in Thailand, a chef taking making street food tacos a better fine dining experience, and a chef that brings art to the table, literally. Like Season 1, it’s an epic journey, much in the path of Planet Earth that offers stunning beauty of food and intimate personal stories of chefs.

In chat, we discuss our perspectives on Chef’s Table: Season 2. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


taiche (Chris Tai): Let’s do this!

jennism (Jenn Ng): So are you a foodie?

taiche: In what I hope is a non-pretentious manner, yes. I like food, I enjoy eating, I seek out new food-related experiences. But I do not judge people on their preferred cuisines or tastes

jennism:
Me too. When we grow into adults with disposable incomes, the easiest thing to reach for…to ​_experience_​ is food. So I became a foodie once I discovered that I could spend to experience great food. But it all started because I enjoyed reading reviews in my parents’ newspaper in the morning. I would skip the news, sometimes even the comics, and read the reviews not only of TV and movies, but also restaurants. And so that describes my experience before watching Chef’s Table.

taiche: My mom would often describe the importance of food is that you should spend on quality with food… it directly impacts your survival and your ability to improve yourself. Everything else is just window dressing, unnecessary, or not vital to your personal benefit. I have often felt like, getting a great deal is always paramount in any interaction… so trying to maximize that level of food quality per bite, is a big deal.

jennism: I grew up in a household where we went to the same restaurant every week. For Cantonese dim sum. Restaurants outside of the home were rare and often consisted of fast food or gimmicky restaurants at tourist traps. But what I discovered in my twenties is that food can have stories. The way that someone pays attention to the craft and the quality of the ingredient, which brings me to writing my book, Ice Cream Travel Guide. I love hearing the stories of chefs and their mission in their food.

As I often say, “Everyone must eat. Food brings people together.”

taiche: Mine was decidedly different… I would drop the thought of gimmicky restaurants at tourist traps… but it was often a mix of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, various Chinese/Korean restaurants in the general area, and perhaps Lawry’s every once in awhile. My mother was quite a good cook though, so we ate at home whenever she wasn’t completely inundated with work. Otherwise, our food choices would revolve around convenience and what could fit in our limited schedule.

jennism: So Chef’s Table. Before Season 1, I had gone through the foodie phase of trying the top restaurants in my own city. Then when traveling, I would seek the best restaurants to have the true local experience. In fact, a large proportion of my income was eating out

taiche: Likewise, I think we both determined food was the best place to spend on… haha.

jennism: So what fascinated you about Chef’s Table?

taiche: Prior to Chef’s Table, we both already had experienced quite a bit of “fine dining” in our locale. For Chef’s Table, I wanted to experience the “cutting edge” of the food industry. Who were these people that were crafting amazing culinary experiences for their guests? What inspired them to do so? And how were they constantly innovating without having fallen into a trap of complacency? Growing up, I was often attracted to the fixed menu. Find something I liked, and then stick with it.

jennism: Exactly and those stories were the most fascinating to me in Chef’s Table. In Season 1, I was attracted to the stories of Massimo Bottura, his craft in learning to make pasta. Nowadays, I am a little less inspired by the flash and dazzle. As a designer, I see beyond the surface. I want to know the intention and the story.

taiche: Part of me feels like I need to rewatch Season 1.

jennism: So what do you think of the current season? The second season of Chef’s Table?

taiche: My one hesitation was that the stories began to run together… I know I watched artistry in action, but surprisingly little of it has stuck in my head.

Perhaps because it was more fresh in my head, I came away from Season 2 with a bit more clarity in the different approaches. In Season 1, I remembered Bottura, Nakayama, and Nilsson.

jennism: We saw stories from a man who wanted to save the rainforest to a woman bringing France to her new homeland to chefs elevating the food of their heritage to chef defining molecular gastronomy. What is common among all episodes, even season 1, is the visuals of the food. Everything, as we expect, would be perfectly plated.

taiche: And that was primarily from Bottura being the kickoff, Nakayama for her personal issues regarding identity, and Nilsson for having eaten at his restaurant. Yes, cinematography throughout the series is uniformly excellent.

jennism: In contrast, Season 2 seems to be exploring deeper issues of identity about what it means to be a chef. In Season 1, the episodes seem to be about how to elevate food to a level that diners appreciate

taiche: I do wonder about the rotating crop of directors… having constant different subjects and stories seems to lead to a more manufactured cohesive style.

jennism: But in Season 2, I found myself thinking: what does it mean to be an artist? to pursue a craft when it doesn’t make sense? Both financially and culturally?

taiche: Yes, I think I found Season 2 more memorable over that fact.

jennism: We had a bit of that theme in Niki Nakayama’s episode from Season 1.

taiche: Which I find interesting, because you have stated your less than enthusiastic response to that particular S1 episode. Visually resplendent… certainly the most “ethereal”

jennism: Yes, that theme was evident in the only female chef in Season 1, but I found the portrayal of herself as an attempt for the series to be feminist, but not showcasing and emphasizing her talents as a chef. That perhaps is the detriment when focusing on that theme, it felt better balanced in Season 2 with the identity crisis woven through each episode.

So let’s start with Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next, and The Aviary in Chicago, United States). What did you think that opening episode?

taiche: I very much enjoyed Grant’s episode. It had the best balance of personal and professional storytelling. And it was certainly the episode that focused on how food culture wasn’t just about eating food directly, but how it has become more of an experience.

What did you think?

jennism: It chronicled his story well from beginning at culinary school to Charlie Trotter’s to French Laundry to Alinea. During his journey, he was constantly pushing the boundaries of he could do—embodying that saying “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”.

taiche: Haha, great line. I hope to use it more often in my daily life.

jennism: Then it pulled a sentimental note with his cancer and his loss of taste. And how his return of taste increased his knowledge of taste and inspired him as a chef in a very unique way

taiche: Not just a sentimental note… I really felt on edge with that topic. We have a top chef that has lost his sense of taste outright, and his life could be next. I couldn’t wait to hear the resolution of the story. I mean, obviously he survived. But it was exciting to hear about how to change the food paradigm without necessarily having it be all about the taste.

jennism: Interesting. Yes, his life was on the line. But it was the feeling of the restaurant: the molecular gastronomy that didn’t engage me fully. What I found difficult about that episode was that the food did seem flashy and dramatic. But how can I critique an artist for the spectacle? He wants to create a magical experience. It’s not just a tomato, it’s a strawberry that tastes like a tomato. But of course, all of that artistry started at Alinea

taiche: So not as much :mindblown: as for me perhaps?

Four words, “pillow of nutmeg air”.

jennism: Not as much, but it was a great opener, especially for those who have rarely experienced these kind of restaurants

taiche: I thought it was excellent as a season premiere. The kind of “hook” that gets people in, even non-foodies, and leaves them wanting more.

jennism: For me, food should really tie into family, culture, and heritage. It didn’t have that connection.

taiche: If this guy made these creations, and had a life/death experience… wow! Can’t wait to see the others.

jennism: So let’s talk about the next episode, Alex Atala, Dom, (Brazil). We both have dined there.

taiche: In that narrative sense, it goes downhill from the first episode, but the rest are buoyed by what you said… they were much more ingrained in connections to family and culture.

jennism: Way before Season 2 was announced. For me, the episodes became better as the season progressed.

taiche: Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, both of us have eaten at D.O.M and we were already familiar with Alex Atala through other means.

jennism: Specifically, that D.O.M. was on the World’s Best Restaurants list. Always coming in the top 10 every year. He is truly a darling of Brazil for having elevating Brazilian cuisine.

taiche: A celebrity man on the street! We’ve seen countless videos of random people coming up to him as he walks around farmers markets and other public places.

jennism: What had attracted me to the restaurant initially was the fact that he wanted to use ingredients from Brazil. In certain countries around the word, the idea that ​_other_​ food is better, that imports are better…is so pervasive. I enjoyed his chats with locals in Brazil, especially when he went up to the Manaus rainforest

taiche: A big part of my enjoyment was seeing him in the wild Amazonian jungle.

jennism: Like he was home!

taiche: Discovering new wild vegetables…, cooking and cleaning meat in the night,… he just came off as really powerful in the wild. Here’s a chef that doubles as a survivalist. As much comfortable in a chef’s uniform, as naked in the jungle.

jennism: One delight of mine when dining at D.O.M. was seeing the rainforest ant on the meringue

taiche: I was impressed by the wide usage of hearts of palm. It was never an ingredient that had attracted my attention, but he made it work.

jennism: I didn’t realize until Alex Atala described his intention that the ant was supposed to taste like lemongrass and ginger

taiche: In my mind, it went from throwaway ingredient filler to “wow, something like this should be on every menu”. What did the ant taste like to you? Unbiased from his intentions.

jennism: I have tasted various insects before and had been usually unimpressed. It often tasted a bit of crunch and their flavoring spices. So I could never identify whether it was the insect itself or its surrounding elements. So let’s move onto the third episode, Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn (United States). Atelier Crenn is located in San Francisco where we live, but neither of us have been yet.

taiche: So I had high hopes for this episode… Atelier Crenn is near our homes! And I generally love French cuisine!

jennism: Her smaller more casual restaurant, Petit Crenn, is going to be a destination soon.

taiche: Is it? Do we have reservations already? 😉

jennism: It’s interesting that this season showcased a few chefs who are not cooking in their home countries. What was fascinating was Dominique’s journey from being adopted to finding her way to being a chef.

taiche: It is true, a lot of the stories involve transporting or introducing their home country’s food culture to a new area.

jennism: To me, this episode emphasizes the bonds between family and food. In contrast to the episode on Grant Achatz, this one reached deeply into Dominique’s past.

taiche: But… I found this episode to be a disappointment. I felt it focused tremendously on the family connections and journey… and almost none of it had anything to do with food.

jennism: Interesting, I found that to be the strength of the episode. Because the food for her is the reason why she cooks, to bring a sense of family and her heritage to a place where she can truly be herself

taiche: There was family drama, and stories of how she interacted with family growing up, but that could have been emotional fodder for any profession. There was no direct bridge between that and the work she does now. We hardly even see her preparing a single dish

jennism: Possibly. In contrast though to Niki Nakayama’s episode in Season 1, I felt the episode on Dominique Crenn balanced well between food and an emotional connection.

taiche: I get that family is a big influence, but how does that directly affect the way she does her cooking at Atelier?

jennism: The name of the restaurant is her father’s name so that is reflection of itself. It’s not cooking! It’s memory, which is that Proustian moment that we seek in food

taiche: We even spent quite a bit of time revisiting her childhood home and reminiscing about parts of her childhood… visiting graves.

jennism: To relieve a memory of the past with the present—that is, the way that the food in California can bring her bounty that she needs to recreate those dishes.

taiche: But none of it is directly connected. It’s like saying, I have a deep emotional connection to my family… and it makes me do great things in my profession. There is no intermediary, no connective tissue there. She says these are my inspirations, but there is no further detail.

jennism: It’s fascinating to see that we come from different perspectives on this episode. I enjoy the emotional side, the heritage, the family connections, because I see inherently that is what elevates the food. But for you, her craft, showcasing that craft is what connects you.

Ok let’s move on to the next episode, Enrique Olvera, Pujol (Mexico). Don’t you love tacos? Not just on a Tuesday!

taiche: Yes… I just never realized how much goes into the process of “mole”

jennism: Or even a tortilla! I loved seeing the press and the way that he brought his family into the process. The way that the corn must be processed and PRESSED into a flat circle

taiche: It was interesting to hear about the cultural associations and society’s view of Mexican food not being “fine dining”. If there’s anything that we can learn from this episode and the next one… it’s that fine dining exists everywhere… it is no way linked to price or exclusivity.

jennism: Especially here in the Mission in San Francisco, a taco is simply a quick eat. The West Coast’s native version of fast food. Indeed, how can a taco be elevated to feel like it’s cooked by a chef who went to culinary school and cares about the techniques

taiche: Even fast food doesn’t need to have connotations of “poor quality” or “just cheap”.

jennism: The journey of how he realized that he was not cooking Mexican food enhances his philosophy of being a chef

taiche: Sometimes, with my background, I enjoy seeing it as “efficiently designed and produced”.

jennism: That he realizes that his job is to elevate his own identity of being a Mexican.

taiche: Cultural pride was a major mainstay of this episode.

jennism: You definitely are looking for well-oiled machines that produce quality product whereas I look for classical art with emotion and meaning

taiche: He really felt cooking and experimenting with the cuisine made him more in touch with his roots of being a Mexican.

jennism: One scene in particular showed all the chefs sharing a taste of a taco and how accidental cumin residue elevated that food

taiche: Sometimes the biggest advances are made with the smallest mistake

jennism: Mexico City sadly had this stigma that it’s not the best city to visit. It’s dangerous and crime-ridden. But here’s an instance where it can show that Mexico is not like that.

taiche: Yes, I think the strength of some of these episodes is that it brings national awareness to the forefront. Fine dining isn’t just about eating fancy food, we are learning about cuisines, resources, and the communities that inspire these creations.

jennism: And then the fourth episode, Ana Ros, Hiša Franko (Slovenia). A female chef without any culinary training who was intended to be a diplomat and disappointed her father, because she chose to stay in Slovenia with her husband, the owner and sommelier of Hiša Franko. This episode highlighted the identity crisis that chefs may experience. What should do they in life? Is this their passion? Is this the right passion? Is it worth it?

taiche: This was an unexpected subject. A chef without formal training, a small eastern European country many couldn’t find on a map…

jennism: Indeed, I didn’t even know where Slovenia is although I knew that it is immediately a country somewhere in Eastern Europe

taiche: In some ways, I felt this episode was reiterating elements we had already heard in the previous episode.

jennism: Yes, but the issue is that at some point, how does David Gelb and his team keep each episode distinct and unique

taiche: Once again, we have a chef, that is reinventing their home country’s perceptions on what it means to be a big player on the world stage with respect to food.

jennism: When writing Ice Cream Travel Guide, I started to feel that all the ice cream shops started to run together, so what made certain ones so unique that the story must be told?

taiche: But I felt this one was a bit more intimate and isolated.

jennism: That’s the challenge that the filmmakers had on their hands. The story of Hiša Franko is very much like Faviken, do you think? Not about the lack of fresh produce, but about its isolation. About how the cuisine of a certain region is completely ignored

taiche: Ana Ros’ story seemed a bit less… dramatic than some of the ones that came before it.

jennism: In what way?

taiche: If anything there was levity in how she came off as well, less stressed and less burdened by society compared to the others. The fact that her home was shared with the restaurant seemed more like a comfortable relatable decision than OMG MUST LIVE AND WORK IN KITCHEN 24/7.

jennism: Due to the nature of her location and the fact that she is not well known. I am curious about how the restaurant will change with an influx of fans or even, more importantly, how the country of Slovenia will change. Even on the Internet so far, Hiša Franko, has been barely mentioned…until Chef’s Table.

taiche: I read that her restaurant was the only one that was not actually part of the Pellegrino list.

jennism: Interesting, perhaps that it’s not well-known or that it wasn’t chosen?

taiche: It seemed to be more of a conscious decision on the producers’ part to highlight someone that had a different story, even if they were farther down the chain.

jennism: Indeed. I came across one food blogger highlighting an experience there and it felt like an undiscovered gem. At the beginning of the episode, I felt that her husband started to dominate the conversation. That the restaurant was about a husband-wife pair. It began to feel confusing.

taiche: There was some cultural animosity in brew as the restaurant was handed to her husband initially.

jennism: Whether it was her episode or their episode, but as the episode continued, it was clear that it was purely ​_her_​ episode, because he was someone who supported that work.

taiche: That her husband, even though he was ​*just*​ the sommelier… was expected to take the reins and continue the legacy.

jennism: What I find interesting is that many restaurants cannot always be credited to one person. Restaurants are the creation of multiple people, but Chef’s Table as a whole focused on one person, the chef who is responsible for the food. But there’s other people who must be responsible for the creation, the way the menu flows like a poem, the structure of the plating, and the stories that are highlighted.

taiche: Do you feel Chef’s Table could be more enjoyable if say, the episodes were about restaurants rather than the chefs that led them?

jennism: As a viewer, it’s appropriate that an individual is the reflection of the episode.

taiche: It is named Chef’s Table, of course.

jennism: Because we want to be a person, we cannot be a team

taiche: And so that leads us to our final episode yes?

jennism: But such series will continue a culture where all the other players are ignored. Yes, let’s talk about Gaggan Anand, Gaggan (Thailand). An Indian chef who felt constricted by the boundaries of his homeland in India and went to Thailand.

taiche: Three things leapt out at me…

  1. The relative inexperience of the people that Gaggan would find himself working with. Part of the episode focused on how he worked in the kitchen… we would often see him directing his staff, dispensing advice… and training people. Here is a chef that teaches openly in the kitchen. But I found it interesting… he had run through a series of failed ventures. A lot due to inexperience of people that he had chosen to go into business with. He came off as a gambler, and fortunately it worked out for him, but it felt a little unearned.
  2. The reiteration of Olvera’s episode about changing the society’s perception of his home country’s cuisine. That the “street food” nature of Indian cuisine could transcend its way into fine dining.
  3. The episode’s focus on building to the Best Restaurant in Asia competition. We didn’t see it something like that featured in any other episodes. I actually thought it detracted. We didn’t need this emphasis on a vaguely defined metric to tell us how important Gaggan was. And I say this as someone that has watched the series without focusing on any restaurant’s actual rankings in Pellegrino or whatever other metric they use.

jennism: Yes, I certainly agree with the third point. It focused on his desire to win, but I don’t think winning is essential in food

taiche: Yes! That was my thought.

jennism: Food is subjective. The food that I love may not be the food that you love. And vice versa. Overall, he was the least sympathetic chef. He has an over-the-top personality, as portrayed in the episode. He is always teaching, even to experienced sous chefs.

taiche: What were the judging criteria? Who are the other entrants? Is it that much better or distinct than Narisawa, which came in at #2?

jennism: And yet, that was the first episode showcasing a restaurant in Asia

taiche: Was it? Ahh..

jennism: Despite being Asian American, I know very little about the kitchen culture in Asia

taiche: I think being a head chef will always involve imparting teachings to your staff.

jennism: Even the episode on n/Naka was very much American despite its cuisine being Asian

taiche: But it was strange to see him discussing basics to kitchen staff.

jennism: It is, but it contrasted heavily with the other episodes in the season. Like when he explained the Indian umami. Or when he went with his sous chef to another Indian restaurant. He was constantly explaining, which made me wonder if his staff ever felt patronized by his lectures or whether that’s simply the way he bonded with others

taiche: As in these people working in the kitchen have little to no experience to actually being there. That one scene with him teaching the “figure 8” is a bit of metaphor for it.

jennism: I wonder if that guy learned to do a figure 8. Whatever the case, the episode inspires me to visit Thailand again, especially with the episode’s portrayal of the visual bounty of the produce and ingredients

taiche: I still don’t think the street vendor guy was ok with Gaggan showing a better way to mix, haha. Felt like he was being usurped. The expression on his face could have been a meme in itself.

jennism: His intention to have only one curry on the menu was intriguing, because the other day when I went to an Indian restaurant, I wanted to have curry. But the items featured on the menu were chaat items, and I didn’t understand it in myself. Not curry? Although consciously, I knew that curry need not always be present.

I can imagine how a conversation with Gaggan would be like, and I wonder how the filmmakers were even able to put it all in one hour. This is not to say that the episode was not fascinating—it contained rich detail of the chef, his personality, his style, his exploration of markets through India and Thailand.

taiche: I do find it odd for anyone to place restrictions… like x/y/z can’t have too much of anything.

jennism: But the episode unfortunately portrayed Gaggan as a chef whose pride of #1 superseded everything else.

taiche: I didn’t mind D.O.M. having hearts of palm in several dishes… and so I don’t see the need to say, “no more curry!”

jennism: It’s about breaking boundaries!

taiche: So as we wrap up, how did you feel overall about Chef’s Table: Season 2?

jennism: Positive. Season 2 enhanced what was so great about Season 1. So see it there? It brought us to varied parts of the world—South America, Eastern Europe, Asia

taiche: I have SeeETThere S1 6.5/10

jennism: SeeETThere for S1: 8/10 Amazonian Ants
SeeETThere for S2: 9/10 Amazonian Ants

taiche: But more importantly, I think it also gave us more variety in socioeconomic impact and cultural diversity.

jennism: I wonder how Chef’s Table will be able to make each episode unique enough that we can remember the chef as a person and not just the mysterious creator of dishes.

taiche:
SeeETThere: 7.5/10 Amazonian Ants for me

jennism:
So see it there soon. On your mobile. On your tablet. On your computer. On whatever connected device you have.

taiche:
I stick with it. It’s not perfect, and there’s room for improvement, but it’s definitely a cut above most other food documentaries. See It There the next time you feel hungry, which should be very soon if you are actually a living breathing person.


Chef’s Table: Season 2

Chef’s Table is an American documentary series released on Netflix. Each episode of the series profiles a single world-renowned chef.

Season: 2
Episodes: 6
Program creator: David Gelb
Executive producers: Andrew Fried, David Gelb, Brian McGinn, Lisa Nishimura, Matt Weaver

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