In my favorite episode of Chef’s Table, a new, six-episode series premiering on Netflix this Sunday, April 26, the famous Argentine chef Francis Mallmann guts a couple of brook trout, then washes them clean by dragging them around in a lake.
It's just a regular day in Mallmann land.
Then he uses soft, wet clay he's just dug from the water to seal the fish up, and places the bundle on a low fire to slowly cook in its own steam. It's an old, uncomplicated technique, but it's beautiful to watch him work.
The best moments in this new series, each episode profiling a different chef around the world, let you quietly observe what goes on behind the scenes, equal parts food porn and character study.
This is Mallmann in his natural habitat, the vast wilderness, speaking about what he does in a characteristically poetic way. Things could easily get goofy, and sometimes they do: "When you build a fire, it's a bit like making love," Mallmann says at one point. Later he reads poetry by the dying firelight.
But David Gelb (who directed the lauded Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono) has created a documentary series that explores complex stories about his subjects, without letting them get too cartoonish.
Mallmann is the romantic, wandering the hills for firewood, reading poetry by the firelight, but he's more than that, too.
As Mallmann grills whole lambs, and hangs chickens over the coals, the episode goes into his past, to tell the story of how Mallmann, who was born in Buenos Aires but raised in Patagonia, came to reject French fine dining and "making fancy French food for rich Argentines," and went on to champion his own rustic, homegrown cooking techniques and ingredients. It didn't happen overnight.
Chances are you're already familiar with the other chef subjects, which include Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy; Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne; and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden. Two episodes feature American chefs: Dan Barber of Blue Hill in NYC and Niki Nakayama of N/Naka in Los Angeles.
I was skeptical of the series at first. Do all these chefs deserve the Jiro treatment? After all, these chefs are famous—properly, internationally famous—and their stories have been told so many times, in so many glossy magazines, that I wondered if there would be any surprises. There were plenty.
Chef’s Table goes deeper into each chef's story and often nudges a bit at uncomfortable themes that most puff pieces tend to leave out, like Shewry's harsh financial struggles. Nakayama, who was not expected by her immediate family to succeed, talks about this only briefly, but the episode goes back to this theme of drive and perseverance in subtle, moving ways. The "mad genius" is a tired trope, but all these chefs have it in them in one way or another, and it's fascinating to watch it unfold.
So is it worth binge-watching this weekend? Yes, just make sure you have some snacks on hand, or it'll be torture.
Chef’s Table premieres on April 26 on Netflix.