In a food-frenzied entertainment culture, the Netflix original Chef’s Table (2015) stands out as a mini-series where food isn’t merely food. With Season 2 due out May 27, I’ve been re-watching the original six episodes of Season 1, which chronicle how six world-class chefs found their culinary identities. Through revealing interviews, well-scored montages, and a commitment to probing honesty, viewers are encouraged to see the food on their plates as something immaterial. Memories, failures, and passions—though intangible—became essential ingredients in every dish. But while the food on Chef’s Table may look outstanding, at its heart, the show is about the chefs’ appetites and how they seek to satiate their inner hungers.
For all six Season 1 chefs, the road to colossal success begins in long seasons of difficulty. In episode 2, for instance, we learn that early in his career, Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hills in Boston saw his illegal catering operation literally go up in flames. According to him, “Most great cooking comes out of hardship…[intense failure] introduces you to an idea that you never want to return to.” Other chefs share similar stories: Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana was accused of “poisoning the new generation” in Modena, Italy, Niki Nakayama found success almost impossible growing up as a woman in a Japanese household, and Ben Shewry describes the start of his career as running “a 2 year-old restaurant that everyone hated.” However, in each chef’s case, the furnace that threatened to consume them proved to be filled with refiner’s fire.…transformation begins when the work of our hands becomes a visible, beautiful expression of not just our creative potential, but also of our identiy as the image-bearers we have been created to be.
Episode 6, for instance, opens with Chef Magnus Nilsson trudging through the deep winter with his dog by his side under the stone gray sky. In the stillness of a subzero car interior, an ice scraper skitters across the glass as he carves out a clear patch on the frosted windshield. Nilsson’s twelve-seat restaurant Fäviken is located in a remote Swedish village. “To start a fine dining restaurant isn’t easy,” his culinary instructor Lotta Aspholan marvels. “To start a fine dining restaurant in the middle of nowhere is impossible.” Nilsson’s success came when he decided to carve out a culinary identity in his icy hometown—a place where nothing grows for six months out of the year. “In extremity,” muses Nilsson, “you discover something new in food.”
Each chef realizes at some point in their journey that they are running from their past; true artistic breakthroughs only come when he or she stops trying to imitate French cuisine or another chef’s recipes and embraces the power of memory. Magnus Nilsson’s creativity, for example, is on display in his root cellar: when fresh produce is impossible year round, he adapts traditional methods of preservation. Through fermentation, curing, and pickling, he is able to take the produce of the past and create something complex and new for the future.
Ben Shewry’s shift, on the other hand, comes when he chooses to embrace an intense memory of drowning as a young boy. “I began to wonder, ‘Could you make a dish that made you feel that same feeling of salt water in your nose, down your throat, of being held under by a strong force?’” What results is the dish “Sea Tastes”: “It was the first dish that wasn’t a knock-off,” Shewry says. “It was the first time I was really proud.” At that moment, he begins to discover his own culinary identity by digging into the rich soil of his own past. He realized, “I want to take people back to a time when people who loved them cooked for them.”
Some chefs, meanwhile, achieved true culinary genius by celebrating the essential role others played in the creative process By far the most delightful story chronicles Massimo Bottura’s return home to Modena, Italy; however, his endeavors at his restaurant Osteria Francescana most likely would have turned out differently had he not been accompanied by his wife Lara Gilmore. Multiple critics and close associates agreed that Lara is the most important element in Massimo’s success. The contagious complementarity of Massimo and Lara’s relationship is beautiful to witness; Bottura’s volcanic creativity is harnessed and fortified by Gilmore’s firm confidence and helpful counsel. Through years of self-doubt followed by years of delicious validation, Massimo realizes that “Happiness is big and deep if you share it with others. This,” he says, “is the point.”
For chefs like Massimo, the greatest joy comes from sharing the restaurant experience. Early on, a traditional Modena home chef taught Bottura the importance of collaboration in cooking, and he credits Lydia for emphasizing the importance of sharing a family meal with the staff before every evening’s service. Chef Ben Shewry has also fostered a sense of mutual respect for opinions in achieving artistic excellence; when he turns to an assistant and asks, “What do you think?” you can tell that he actually wants to know. Shewry has even drawn his customers into the artistic collective. On experimental Tuesdays, he and his staff introduce ideas in their infancy for customer feedback. It could take three months or two years to perfect each dish, but through this artistic teamwork, Shewry insists, “One day I’m going to unlock the best flavor from [each] ingredient.”
Not all of the chefs are so inclusive in their creative endeavors, however. Episode 2 begins and ends with the same scene of Dan Barber’s lean silhouette running alone—an emblem of his decidedly individualistic nature. Though his life is a beehive of activity, there is a sense that the constant buzzing is a distraction from an abiding loneliness. “That drive is expensive,” he remarks. “What’s the cost?” While Barber seems aware of the toll his work takes on him, however, Francis Mallman is unapologetic about being a lone wolf. In one moment of frankness, he speaks about his significant other: “Living together—it destroys passion,” he asserts. “I hate all this thing of the faithfulness. Part of this, we are animals and there is beauty in that.” In one poignant scene, Mallman draws a pair of beautiful trout out of a serene mountain lake and cooks them over a raised fire while still standing in the water where they were caught. The moment is simultaneously breathtaking and soberingly forlorn.
The most surprising aspects of Chef’s Table, though, are the moments of introspective clarity; as it turns out, the ephemeral nature of cooking makes for a plateful of good metaphors about the transitory nature of life. Each chef has devoted his or her life to crafting pieces of art that are destined to be consumed. Perhaps none has embraced the momentary nature of his craft as much so much as Mallman. The scenes of his outdoor revelries—parties in the Patagonian wilderness full of jolly ax-swinging, roaring fires, and raucous dinners followed by shared blankets and poetry reading under a starry sky—are filmed through smoky billows and shovel-tossed dust, imbuing them with a distinctly fairy-tale-esque sense of wonder. In the morning, however, the smoky dream dissipates. Mallman is left alone again, steeping a cup of coffee in a sock in his primitive cabin, pensively wondering if the previous night’s sensual experience was just a dream.As astonishingly creative as the plates at these chefs’ restaurants are, at the end of the day the beautiful food always gets eaten.
As the season progresses, the cost of creative endeavor becomes clearer and clearer. As Barber burns the candle at both ends for causes like organic farming and soil improvement, for instance, he wonders, “Does this lead to a happy life? I don’t have the answer.” He has a young daughter that he hardly sees. With sadness he contemplates, “I’ll never get that time back.” Every day’s challenge is to try to refill the plates left empty the previous day with something more delicious, more innovative: “Isn’t our life one attempt to fill a void after another?” he asks. “But I’m trying hard. Who knows where this stuff originates and where it ends?”
AAn undercurrent throughout Chef’s Table‘s first season suggests that the most fulfilling creative accomplishment comes not when a tortured artist destroys the rest of his life for the sake of his art, but when he realizes that his worth is not defined by the things he creates. As astonishingly creative as the plates at these chefs’ restaurants are, at the end of the day the beautiful food always gets eaten. As we watch each chef negotiate the tensions of life in the world—family and work, striving and contentment, spirituality and sensuality—we feel the pervasive sense that there must be something beyond, something eternal to anchor the soul, without which life becomes sad, futile, despondent.
Indeed, many of the chefs had breakthrough moments when they refused to be defined by their drive for success and began to ponder their own unique God-given perspectives. For creatures made in the image of God, then, Chef’s Table shows us how transformation begins when the work of our hands becomes a visible, beautiful expression of not just our creative potential, but also of our identity as the image-bearers we have been created to be.