I thought I was done with food shows on television, except for a brief binging stop at an apparently well-known but unknown to me British baking show some time ago. In fact, I thought I might be kind of done with food. And, reading has become a challenge as well. I am not sure what any of this means. But it is part of why the blog went by the wayside for a longer than acceptable time.
In any case, turns out I am not utterly done. How do I know? I re-started this blog and, more importantly perhaps, my partner (who inspired this blog) was in Chicago for surgery and we binge watched. . . Chef's Table. What is Chef's Table? It is a documentary series on Netflix now in its third (or fourth depending if you count the French mini-series) season. How I managed to miss this entirely until now is a tiny bit baffling. Or not.
But now: I have seen the entirety, lying in bed, in a dark room in Chicago.
As a result, the many episodes have turned into a kind of nourishing mush in my head. I watched way too many in one day (or was it two?). We just finished yesterday though you may be reading this a month later. Anyway, with this preface, here are some reflections, starting with overviews and then moving to a miscellany of details.
First: I have a sense of the fire -- in many episodes -- in which food is cooked. Digging holes and putting food in there with rocks. Grilling. Fire. Fire. Fire. And, not just because one of the commentators on one of the chefs is Bill Buford whose book Heat I loved. (In fact, I reviewed it here.) The visuals are there, in my head, repeating - flames and sparks.
Second: The documentaries are filled with music. The music seems, on occasion, stereotyped or at least weirdly predictable, but it still manages to successfully carry the visuals. By stereotyping, I may mean "all too often associated with this nationality." In any case, there is a sort of lift -- to the episodes and the series as a whole -- as a result of the music. It works to push narratives along, to situate stories, and more. At least one episode got an award for the music!
Third: Each documentary focuses on a single chef, with some commentary from others well known in the land of foodies -- usually a writer or two, but on occasion another chef or family member. There is a sort of arc to the films, addressing childhood, recipes, and what I read somewhere are moments of "epiphanies." Moreover, in the series itself there is a sort of theme of both novelty -- making something new -- and contact with tradition or continuity with history.
Fourth: There is a focus (both visual and otherwise) on the worlds of nature and of technology in the series. There is no either/or here, but always and in complex ways, both/and. A number of the chefs focus on nature -- the food chain -- and their role in it. There are scenes of walking through the world -- whether city or the middle of nowhere, whether field or beside rivers or streams, or in forests. The chef from Blue Hill, for example, Daniel Barber, is connected to nature through his emphasis on "product," though the foraging and farming (or gardening) theme seems to connect chef to producer in many instances. (Yes, I was thrilled to see Penn Yan, NY in the episode on Blue Hill!) While I do not think the theme of relations between nature and technology is deliberately highlighted, it is there. I might be wrong -- it might be intentional - I cannot tell. But: you see immersion heaters and spoons, wood stoves and high tech foam creation, amazing stoves and ranges and stainless steel, and wood. You see the outdoors -- Amazon and Patagonia, Sweden and Thailand, urban and rural, distances both near and far. You see green fields and trees, small flowers and desert, mountains and sea side coves and thundering waves. You see grain growing and fish being caught (and gutted). You see moose and cows and goats and . . . people. You see a chef place an insect on his tongue, and others tasting as they walk and as they cook. So many parts of the world are held up to be smelled, that though the series cannot convey smells directly, the viewer knows they are important in both nature and in food technologically manipulated whether through fire per se or liquid nitrogen. You see a lot, including the inside of a place called Crucial Detail, which designs various food related items for Grant Achatz of Alinea fame including a porthole infuser that we own.
Details matter - both to ambience and to the serving utensils and plates and . . . everything matters to what is clearly being defined not as eating only but as a full experience focused on (as some of the chefs say) memory and hope. I am not a detail person, and that is something that I found very interesting about this series.
Fifth: The word freedom seems to echo across episodes, and perhaps less resolutely, creativity. The search for a life's work, and for freedom to pursue it, seems to be at the heart of many of these tales. Freedom from the dominance of a parent who refuses to think of cooking as a vocation, freedom from the streets and gang life that defined the poverty of one's youth and childhood, freedom from the structures of French cooking or the definition of fine dining. freedom from parents who are cuisine defining chefs. Freedom from pain, loss and the strictures of education. Freedom, on more than one occasion, echoing in the politics of location and of class or nation. The word is the same (though often a translation into English of words in the many other languages these chefs speak) and yet the implications of its use in the US (in 2017 perhaps unlike 2016), Russia, Slovenia, Peru, France . . . differ perhaps. Individual freedom, political or governmental freedom, and more.
Discipline appears as well. And, it is somehow the tension between freedom and discipline that creates. . . these chefs or, at least, the narratives of these documentaries. There is both fear and fearlessness in all this.
Sixth: There are multiple restaurants from the US, including LA, Chicago, San Francisco and NYC (and the Hudson Valley). Including the mini-series on French places, there are multiple from France. Other places there are single restaurants. All seem to be in the top 50 in the world, and many have Michelin Stars. I assume that is how they were chosen?
Seventh: While there is one "chef of color" from the US, there is a chef from India (cooking in Thailand) and a Mexican chef at a Mexican restaurant, and several South Americans (Brazil and Peru). Does that count? There are, of course, many many POC in the background whether the Andeans one episode or the dishwashers in another. The husband of one French chef (Yam 'Tcha ?) is from Hong Kong (and is himself a wonder). What does it mean that I have to think about this so hard? Is it annoying or interesting that I differentiate between international and domestic POC. Hmmm. I am unsure. But the series pushes one to local and global in both ingredients and in much else, with chefs traveling to train and carrying back tastes that seem "new" in a new setting or a new combination.
Somewhere I saw that the creator of the series wanted to highlight women chefs. Yes, there are a number featured in the series, and yet the series feels . . . gendered in an unexpected (or trivially expected) way, with the women represented differently than the men. I am not sure if this is something I read into the series or if it is "really" there. There is a repeated use of the word macho in one of the seasons, and a resistance to that by some. And, there is a self consciousness about the caring perspective, the giving perspective, the focus on the diner, of some of the women. Hmmm.
Heterosexuality seems to be a main theme, with almost all having children -- though there is a French chef whose most meaningful relationship is clearly the restaurant itself and the chef at the San Francisco restaurant has a partner in life who is a woman. Perhaps the theme that is intended is the importance of partnerships and the family as an aspect of hearth.
I am not sure how the diversity of identities relates to the diversity of the chefs and their cuisines. Many are products of -- both through training and resistance -- the French training system, and they are clearly globally influenced as many travel an enormous amount. Hmmm. Global and local? Global or local?
Eighth: The series seems to emphasize the emotional value (or valence) of food and the ways chefs put their emotions and passions into their food. This is quite distinct from what I think was a prior emphasis upon technique. My partner seems to think this goes with the turn to affect as an academic topic, and new books on empathy and other emotions as part of history and culture. Hmmm.
Finally: The word I keep using about the series is: inspiring. My partner seems to be finding it a way of thinking through what she has not accomplished (this maybe a mis-reading of her), and I find it kind of hard in some ways because the relationships to people are also highlighted in the episodes, especially family. And, yet, I do find the series inspiring. I am not sure that I have accomplished in my life what I wanted, either personally or professionally, and I am a bit jealous of the drive that seems to have helped make these chefs. But, I also know that there have been times when I have leaped, and that leap has been important to me. One area where I was pushed to self reflection was by the chefs who work alongside their entire families, or their partners, in a business and in life.
So, enough for over-arching themes or my connecting the multiple episodes we saw. Enough wrestling with my own feelings and thoughts in public. What about some specifics.
First: We have only been to one of the restaurants led by a chef from the series, the aforementioned Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next, and the ignored here but equally amazing, Aviary. The episode on this Chicago (and world) landmark was kind of predictable in some ways -- perhaps because I already knew about his struggle with cancer, for example. But it was also fascinating to see the backdrop to the food we experienced the times (yes, more than once!) we went to Alinea, Aviary, and then to Next. I admit I was most taken with the moment when Achatz describes the idea of serving right on to the table, and the making of the table cloth which is a true dining cloth. The scenes in Chicago tugged a bit at my heart.
I am unsure whether the fact I have never been to the restaurants of other chefs made the series more inspiring than it might have been otherwise. Perhaps I cannot see the framing quite as much in those cases.
We also have been meaning to go to Blue Hill for some time, but have never made it there. Hmmm. What does that say? What does all this say about familiarity and novelty?
Second: (and yes, I have started re-numbering) I loved the episode on the Korean Buddhist monk/nun, Jeong Kwan, and not just because I discovered Eric Ripert is Buddhist. I loved the visuals and the challenge of balancing the desire for community with solitude, the sense that there is meaning in what one accomplishes, and the ways that outdoor and indoor, external and internal, are temple-like. No, I am not a buddhist, but just as I am not a poet but like to explore that land, I have explored (popular) buddhism on occasion through reading, podcasts, and documentaries. I am curious how this episode might appear next to a documentary I also liked on buddhism and food featuring Espe Brown (connected, as well, to the Tassajara bread book). And, I have been exploring some of Ripert's writings related to this episode, such as this one here.
One tension in the viewing of this one is the notion that it is "more" buddhist to clean up as one goes along, and the emphasis on not being attached. I am unsure about detachment as a practice and detachment as a form of depression or closing off. How this affects ones relationship to food seems to me a difficult topic to explore and worth thinking through. This makes me think about the ways egotism can be both a label to dismiss someone or some feeling -- and something one needs to gain if one is not allowed any authority or autonomy.
Having just written that, I also wonder how the episode on Nancy Silverton, with its emphasis on obsession . . . and bread . . . might appear beside Espe Brown on bread. And I think about how Silverton focused on obsession as a meaningful word to describe herself and how that might link to the passions and persistence in the face of enormous (un)likelihood of success. . . . Is obsession a good thing? In what context? And, is the pain that comes with it worth it? I admit I would like to go to Nancy Silverton's restaurants - for both the mozzarella and for the pizza. (And only now do I know one of her partners is Mario Batali, whose words in the episode were quite kind and open.)
My partner wants to travel -- and has traveled a lot compared to me, though not enough for her own desires. I thought about traveling to each restaurant as I watched the series. I imagine having been there. I am more the type to get stuck and stay, though I am always happy when I have the chance to explore new places with her. She is my inspiration to move forward. I think it might be tiring to be the inspiration rather than the inspired, though the chefs depicted here seem to be able to transcend that risk.
I should write more, my head says. I a stopping says my heart. Watch the series. See what you think/feel/become.