Documentary review: Chef’s Table Season 5

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A cinematic consideration of diversity.

The documentary series ‘Chef’s Table’ showcases some of the world’s most renowned chefs and allows each to divulge their profoundly personal experiences and motivations, ultimately realising the unique styles that shape their cuisine.  In its first four seasons, the Netflix original ​series ​became known for its artistic cinematography and creative elevation of what cooking programmes had become. Launched on the September 28th, season five explores a new sense of diversity in both its approach and its subjects.

Unlike the past episodes, which revealed an unwelcome penchant for the male Michelin-starred chefs and fine dining exclusivity, the new season is seemingly a response to the audience critique of its predecessor (the pastry season). It showcases the most diverse and accessible cast so far, with two out of four chefs being women and two of the restaurants exhibiting a dining experience that seems more plausible to its audience: relativity inexpensive and void of bookings stretching a year in advance.

Season five shows deep consideration of how and why food stories should remain compelling even in 2018 when everything – or so we thought – has already been covered. Since its initial release in early 2015, across the 22 episodes that have led to the latest season, all of five female chefs had been featured on the show. It could be argued that discussing why such a lack of diversity is still prevalent in this rapidly modernising era would be worth our time, but why not give these award-winning filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and focus on how Chef’s Table is marking a major discourse of correction.

This distinctly new direction was spearheaded by the compelling story of Philadelphia chef and undocumented immigrant, Cristina Martinez. Fleeing an abusive husband, Martinez left Mexico eight years ago and throughout the episode it becomes clear that the trauma she experienced from this time will never fade. Despite all her efforts to become integrated, she was denied a green card and remains officially undocumented, living a life constantly at risk in Philadelphia.

Dissimilar to many of the series’ chefs, Martinez never sought to over complicate the traditional ingredients she used to create gastronomical elevations. After losing her job at a local restaurant – where her employer refused to write her a recommendation letter in her application for a green card – she and husband Ben Miller began cooking the food of Martinez’ childhood out of their one-bedroom apartment. Now, they are both co-owners of and chefs at their restaurant South Philly Barbacoa. Martinez is celebrated for her traditional Barbacoa cuisine: lamb that is laced with citrus and slow-cooked over an open flame. What started as the simple necessity of living, eventually grew into a platform for a greater understanding of Mexican food.

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In this episode, Martinez’ story explores the challenges of immigrants worldwide. Her constant battle to be accepted in a place so far from home, paired with the sacrificial nature of everything she does, solely to support her daughter and family, whom she hasn’t seen since she began her 15-day trek across the desert. Not only does this first episode shed light on the challenges faced by undocumented workers across the American food industry, it somehow still delivers what viewers clicked on Chef’s Table hoping to see; a beautifully filmed depiction of new world cuisine that fully defends the ability of food to provide comfort when it is most needed.

With nowhere else to go when the doors of acceptance were slammed in her face, Cristina Martinez stood her ground. Fuelled by the love from her family in Mexico, she managed to make a home for herself in South Philadelphia by sharing the food of her ancestors. But it’s not just Martinez who steers the new-found theme of diversity within the season. Episode two travels to Turkey where mentor and chef, Musa Dağdeviren, expresses the loss of knowledge about native cuisines.

“When you define food in ethnic terms, it sets communities against each other, and can create a serious alienation and extinction of our food culture,” Dağdeviren explains as the documentary films him at his restaurant, Çiya, where he aims to converge dishes from regions across Turkey. Producing food traditionally served in homes, that connect the customers to their long forgotten ethnic roots.

In another episode, ‘Chef’s Table’ travels to Thailand to meet Bo Songvisava, who was voted Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2013, and whose authentic Thai cooking draws influence from both the city’s impassioned street food and the rediscovered flavours of home traditions. At her restaurant, Bo.Lan, Songvisava and husband Dylan ‘Lan’ Jones use only organic and locally sourced produce in their commitment to fight the industrialisation of the food industry.

Finally, the collection ends with Albert Adrià of elBarri in Barcelona. Although the chef can be considered a success in his own right, he feels his life is constantly overshadowed by the status of his older brother and fellow Catalonian chef, Ferran Adrià Acosta. With a constant obligation to create new and exciting culinary advancements, Adrià recounts the immense pressure of working in a world-renowned restaurant, its effects made clear to the viewer.

Each account from season five seems to highlight a different modern-day challenge. Whether the main theme is identity, acceptance or a loss of culinary connection, ‘Chef’s Table’ has somewhat explored and conquered a widened scope of subjects. Encouraging the audience to feel at ease in the hands of these new characters, who are undeniably more relatable than those who came before them.

 

 

 

 

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