I finished watching the Netflix cooking show “Final Table” recently. I don’t watch a lot of reality TV but this one hooked me.
The format is that 24 chefs from around the world form 12 2-person teams. These chefs are a great mix of renowned chefs with awards and accolades and Michelin stars, as well as young up-and-coming chefs looking to make a name for themselves. Each episode they “visit” a different country and cook with foods and ingredients indigenous to that country. The show is broken up into two parts: in the first, the contestants must cook their version of a classic dish from that country for 3 “ambassador” judges, usually two entertainers and a food critic. In the second part, the bottom 3 teams must compete for survival in front of a legendary chef from that country, who chooses one ingredient which must be the focus of the dish.
To me, this formula was familiar to many American cooking shows, which featured over-wrought competitions with heightened anxiety for dramatic effect. This can produce an eye-rolling effect at times, where the judges are perched 20 feet above the competitors, watching their progress from a royal dais. With sharp camera cuts and silly lighting tricks meant to up the stakes, as well as forced dramatic music to compound the effect. Add to this the oftentimes snarky demeanor of the show’s presenter, Bon Appetit’s editor-in-chief and occasional Ryan Seacrest impersonator, Andrew Knowlton, and you may be reaching for the remote to change the program before the end of the first episode.
However, if you get past these silly theatrics (and you should), you get to the heart of a genuine cultural experience that I found entertaining, educationally valuable, and culinarily inspiring.
“The chef’s job, much like the anthropologist is to take that culture, to interpret it, and to convey it to others.”
As a bartender, I’ve worked in some really wonderful restaurants over the years. I’ve worked closely with chef’s whose work I admire and respect. I have watched them work, tasted their creations, and collaborated with some to help hone my own craft, and in the process, I have developed a profound appreciation for the art, pride, and respect that goes into becoming a chef.
But, it was while watching this show that I realized that many chefs are truly cultural anthropologists as well, which has given me another layer of respect for the craft. Watching the delicate and respectful way in which these chefs approached the culture and food of these countries was sometimes really beautiful to watch.
I understand better, that the food of a culture is not just about the ingredients and cooking techniques for preparation, but the understanding of how food is experienced through the lens of the people who eat it, especially when you are dealing with culturally important foods and traditions. This is another dimension that really intrigues me about the art of cooking. The chef’s job, much like the anthropologist is to take that culture, to interpret it, and to convey it to others.
The true beauty of it for me, however, is when you think about culinary arts as sort of a unified culture of its own that encompasses all of these traditional aspects as well as new, bold techniques and outside of the box thinking; and these chefs infusing their own ideas into these traditional ones to create something new altogether.
This show was not perfect and I hope they get a second season to fix some of the inherent issues that it does have, like the final “prize” which is basically just a seat at a table (which they invented) alongside the legendary chefs from each episode (9 in total). A competition of this magnitude should have higher stakes involved. Additionally, for 9 episodes the chefs worked in teams, only to have the last episode be an individual competition. I think this was a mistake. Beyond this, the show was entertaining to watch, with cultural elements that made me want to travel and to eat and to cook all at once. In this sense, the show was a resounding success for me and I hope they renew it for a second season.