TL;DR – Chef’s Table is at the pinnacle food documentaries, indeed it is one of the best documentary series I have ever watched and season 3 is no different.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
For those of you who read my review on the last season of Chef’s Table, their mini-season in France, then you should know that I really love Chef’s Table (for those who didn’t, just to catch you up, I really love Chef’s Table). From a filmmaking perspective, to the featured guests, to the spectacular food, it is a joy to watch. However, that means that I come to the next season with very high expectations, so bon appétit, 맛있게 드세요, прия́тного аппети́та, and mahlzeit, and welcome to Chef’s Table season 3.
If you have never seen an episode of Chef’s Table the basic premise is that each episode they follow a different chef from around the world. Each episode looks at their life, their philosophy of food, and the many different things that influenced them to be where they are today. While most of the chefs come from the top restaurants in the world, there are also some up and coming chef’s and it’s this variety that helps to make each episode shine. In this season we get to meet Jeong Kwan a Buddhist nun from South Korea, Vladimir Mukhin head chef of White Rabbit in Moscow, Nancy Silverton a champion of the LA food scene, Ivan Orkin an expert in ramen, Tim Raue who upturning the food scene in Berlin, and Virgilio Martínez Véliz who is opening the worlds eyes to local Peruvian foods. Each of these chefs have such different stories, come from different places, had different lives, and that’s what makes Chef’s Table sparkle because as much as it is a show about beautiful food, it is also not just about food.
We start the season off with Jeong Kwan which is such a fascinating choice because she does not work in a top fifty restaurant, nor is she an up and coming chef trailblazing a new cuisine, instead she is a nun at the Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea. Not only is this interesting because Jeong-nim is not the usual subject for the series, but also because she is such a fascinating person to listen too. Here we get an intriguing insight into not only Jeong-nim’s philosophy but also we get a look into Korean style temple food. From the gardens, to the life of the nuns, to the wonderful vegetarian food, and also some truly phenomenal kimchi, I really love kimchi. More than anything we see the simple joy that can be found in a smile. This is also the episode where we start to see some of the interesting techniques that they use to engage the viewer, from the use of water and bird sounds as part of the soundtrack, to new filming techniques like using drones for some of the wide shots. It also sets in motion the much more intimate look into lives of these chef’s than we have seen in the past. We see that in say the life of Tim Raue, whose story of growing up is just heart-breaking and also really makes you angry at the same time.
What really helps Chef’s Table is that these amazing stories are supported by truly excellent cinematography. For example, I don’t think I have ever seen a show that showed of the beauty of Peru like the episode showcasing Virgilio Martínez Véliz. This is really important because it reinforces the philosophy of Central, his restaurant, in creating biospheres on the plate, and you get this from the cinematography. Of course it would not be a show about food without some amazing shots of food, and of course Chef’s Table delivers on this in spades. At the end of every episode we see a gallery of the chef’s creations, it’s the climax of the episode and all of them are amazing, and a really good example of this is the episode showcasing Nancy Silverton. We have spent the whole episode watching how she discovered her passion for food and cooking, so when you see a Grilled Cheese or a French Baguette those things have power because we know her story. Indeed these sections work so well because there is a harmony between the music, the editing, and the visuals, which does not always happen. Though of course at times Chef’s Table is not afraid to be controversial or at least confronting, I know I was not expecting to see moose lips being cooked this season, but there they were.
One of the trademarks of Chef’s Table is its music, it has a very consistent musical style throughout the episode spearheaded by Vivaldi’s Winter in the opening titles. In fact you will be inundated with amazing compositions from Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn, as well as original compositions from Duncan Thum. This use of music is one of the things Chef’s Table uses to bring a common thread across the different episodes, which is important when you have five directors, as well as different editors, and directors of photography. However, in each episode there is always a little something unique, something to help set the scene. What I really liked this season is that they have taken this musical uniqueness and expanded on it. For example with the episode on Nancy Silverton you have this slide guitar, bassoon & drum combination that completely evokes that sea side feel of 1980s LA, also with the episode on Ivan Orkin you have these wonderful jazz compositions which really fits the story of someone from New York going to open a ramen shop in Tokyo, anything that gives reference to Cowboy Bebop is always welcome in my book. Music is such a powerful conveyer of emotion, and the wrong music choices can create a disconnect and stops you from engaging with the work, but here everything flows together.
Another factor I really liked is how they set you up to have a preconceived notion of who a chef is only to rip that rug out from underneath you. Take for example our first introduction to Ivan Orkin who sums himself up as “I’m a sort of ‘go f#@k yourself’ kind of guy” and then we go on from there. When you have already had the story of a Buddhist nun and you have just finished watching how Nancy Silverton perfected the pizza crust this almost brutal whiplash in tone. However, this is a brilliant framing technique because first immediately differentiates this episode from all that have come before, second it kind of tells you that this is going to be a different focus than some of the past episodes and is going to focus on a new type of food Ramen. However, what it also helps you do is pigeon hole Ivan right from the start, but like Ramen Ivan is a man of many layers and as the episode continues, as you learn about his history and his philosophy of food, you are forced to confront your preconceived notions, and then you will get smacked right in the feels. This is such an effective story telling device and we see it again with Tim Raue later in the season because even though you start feeling a bit standoffish buy then end you have connected with a person from across the world who you may never meet in real life.
While I really loved the season there are some awkward moments, like how they kind of skirt around WW2 when talking about Berlin food culture in the 1930s onwards. As well as this, I watched them all in a row, and it felt like while each of the individual episodes were great. the season as a whole didn’t flow as well as it has in the past, and something was missing from the Virgilio Martínez Véliz episode, but I’m not sure what it was, but it didn’t quite connect as well as it could have.
In the end I highly recommend Chef’s Table, if you like stories about food it is the best one out there for you, if you like stories about people then it is one of the best ones out there for you, if you love the techniques of film and the integration of music that this is one of the best ones out there. Chef’s Table is beautiful, thought provoking, emotional and a joy to watch, and if you have Netflix you should really check it out.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (language warning)
Directed by – David Gelb, Brian McGinn, Andrew Fried, Abigail Fuller, Clay Jeter
Music by – Duncan Thum
Cinematography by – Matthew David Chavez, Adam Bricker, Chloe Weaver, Will Basanta
Created by – David Gelb
Featuring – Jeong Kwan, Vladimir Mukhin, Nancy Silverton, Ivan Orkin, Tim Raue & Virgilio Martínez Véliz