Food is the most universal language. In many places of the world, you can get by without knowing a word of Spanish, Mandarin, or French. They are widely spoken, but not wide enough to encompass all of humanity. No single, literal language does. But if you’re a human being anywhere, you cannot get by for more than a handful of days without consuming and digesting some kind of edible flora or fauna. The cultivation and intake of food are some of the most fundamental activities of being a person. We have to eat. As such, much of our civilization and culture has emerged around the things that constitute a meal and their sources. Over the course of the last few hundred years, many and varied branches of a thoroughgoing food industry have grown, and we now find ourselves high up in the canopy of the culinary tree without a view or an interest in the trunk and roots below that led to its growth.
We now watch food competitions on television and take smartphone pictures of food seemingly as much or more than we spend time eating it. We order out, drive through, and snack on the go while our pans and pantry collect dust at home. We readily recognize the sight of plastic-wrapped packages of meat in bulk without having any idea of how the animal was raised and butchered. We have kids who struggle to identify tomatoes and potatoes in their original, just-picked state. There are chefs and food industry experts who are nearly as popular and well known as Hollywood celebrities are for film.
We are enraptured by the consumption of food. There are two polar extremes. On the one hand, trying too hard: bombastic, absurdist gastronomy with excessive technique and uncomplementary ingredients forced together (which the average person will largely never be able to taste or learn to make anyway). On the other, indolence: processed junk with grotesque amounts of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates encouraging us to indulge in foods that undermine our well-being. In both, there is a lack of understanding true craft—knowing the essential interconnections in ecosystems where edible plants and animals grow, what constitutes quality, true skill, and approachability. Food is the universal language, but few of us are fluent anymore—even many chefs. We live in one of the two extremes. We’ve lost the meaning of a well-prepared meal and the proper amount of reverence it deserves.
In such a paltry conceptual environment, Netflix’s original series Chef’s Table could not have been released at a better time. It’s food television, to be sure, but it supersedes existing programs in a way that makes it more of an artistic philosophical reflection than pop entertainment. Chef’s Table compellingly presents a middle ground between the extremes of fetishized gastronomy and profane processed foods. Each of the chefs featured are struggling to break free from the status quo of the culinary world and provide people with a resonant, grounded food experience.
Massimo Bottura has established the third-best restaurant in the world by simply capturing the essence of traditional small-town Italian flavors and presenting them with the playfulness of a child sneaking tastes in a grandmother’s kitchen. Dan Barber is a prophet for understanding that the best flavors are inherent to the best ingredients, which is ultimately dependent on the health of the soil and the rhythms of nature. His literal farm-to-table restaurant at a barn in rural New York just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant—the Best Picture Oscar of cuisine. Francis Mallmann is a revered chef with the utmost classical technique, who prefers to cook over open fire on a remote Patagonian island with the closest of companions—journeying through life as a sort of renegade band. Niki Nakayama uses the memory of past meals and personalization to every diner to imbue her cooking with additional layers of curated thoughtfulness and relatability. Ben Shewry shows that exceptional food need not be haughty or showy, that creativity often comes out of necessity, and that care of family and friends is just as important as aspiration for brilliance. And in the season finale, it becomes fully clear that eating well is not limited by place or expectations of how a restaurant and its kitchen should function. Magnus Nilsson prepares some of the most renowned food in the world by picking and preserving what arises in each season in remote Sweden—later preparing it in the intimacy of a 12-seat, tightly-staffed lodge.
Each chef narrates their journey of ambition and failure—of perseverance and gaining insight and originality. Like Aristotelian virtues, flourishing occurs in the balance or mean between the extremes. Culinary arts as a genuine art is about: humility in relation to the dirt that produces everything we take and use to eat; learning and sometimes failing at technique to be able to later freely play with it like a virtuoso instrumentalist; and connecting with other people by prioritizing simplicity and enjoyment over pride and recognition. Show creator David Gelb hopes people, “watch these films and then look at their own lives and the places where they eat and see how it changes their perspective.”
In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes, “The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot,’ to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.”
This kind of harmony—such moderation between trying too hard and indolence—is the way the chefs in Chef’s Table engage cooking, and the earth that brings about the bounty of what can be cooked, in preparation for the people who eat it. We, too, can find genuine happiness through food by coming to see the culinary mean between the extremes as we dine.