The new season of Chef’s Table came out on Netflix last week. It’s good! It’s a lot more of the same.
There are sexy shots of food and sweeping landscapes that inspire artistic plates. Stories of family and life inform us of a chef’s journey. Personalities flare in the kitchen, ultimately having some influence on a unique dining experience. Men are at the center.
That’s what this show is about. It’s a great (“great”), very enjoyable edible documentary that has ultimately grown into an uncomfortable representation of all the problems with the world via the food world: it’s all about men. The show strives to showcase diversity and various talents and, while it does that on the surface featuring a female Korean chef and a Los Angeles culinary icon who is also a woman, everything about the show leads back to men.
Let’s unpack this, by the female driven episodes, save for the French season that I have not watched.
• Niki Nakayama, Season One: The least directly about men, this same-sex oriented chef cooks with her wife but is under the shadow of being a “female chef in Japanese cuisine.”
• Dominique Crenn, Season Two: The San Francisco chef pushes a new path in creative cuisine but brings it all back to her inspiration: her father.
• Ana Roš, Season Two: The virtually unknown Slovenian chef makes her appearance on the show to fulfill her duty as a mother who miraculously has the time to be a lauded chef despite conflict with her father.
• Jeong Kwan, Season Three: A South Korean monk whose work is only getting attention thanks to Eric Ripert plucking her out obscurity to allow male journalists to muse on her process, which of course brings in her father’s death via understanding how she lives.
• Nancy Silverton, Season Four: Remarkable Los Angeles chef whose work is framed in reference to her divorce from Mark Peel, being a mother, and—Of course.—the influence of her father.
That all sounds weird, right?
That’s because it absolutely is. The entire show is manufactured around men, rewinding time back to the Garden Of Eden, that these women are constantly chasing Adam to be his rib. The bigger issue here is that the food industry is a strange, machismo world of men overcompensating for the fact that they are doing historically “female” work by cooking and thusly women in the industry are left in a strange position.
This is a well documented problem that requires oodles of creativity to curb. Women chefs are supporting each other to step over this male problem. Women in the kitchen are “only now” standing up to latent sexism and harassment. They’re continually fetishized and reminded that, yes, they are women.
While Chef’s Table does an excellent job showcasing the work of diverse chefs, they too fall into the trap of comparing women against men but not vice versa. Like the industry, it repeatedly fails the Bechdel test by pinning these women to the other sex. But the male episodes? They linger in male greatness, bringing in women as the occasional accessory in the kitchen or property of their success.
Sometimes you have to represent the change that you want to see instead of reenforcing it. While a pretty piece of work, a succulent hour of documentary television, what Chef’s Table does for women is basically nothing since they are a means to support the problem that they face: men.