Chef Dominique Crenn, of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, on Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.
Sizzler was our family’s first “fancy” restaurant. We only went because my brothers and I were awarded honor roll certificates for free trips down the salad bar. We awkwardly stood in line, trying to decipher the menu framed on the wall, and only chose dishes that were accompanied by oversized photographs so we knew exactly what we were getting. I thought Sizzler was special because the menu felt foreign: dishes with slabs of steak, battered crispy shrimp, and an all-you-can-eat salad bar with trays of cafeteria linguine, chicken nuggets, and a soft-serve machine. For those couple of hours, in a small restaurant booth, our family could feel American, with forks instead of chopsticks and garlic bread instead of rice.
It feels silly now to think back on how special it felt to eat at Sizzler when my mother had been cooking three- or four-course Chinese Vietnamese dinners, always served family style, since forever—the kind of food that would be valorized if it were cooked by a young white dude chef who graduated from a culinary institution but was only deemed mere home-cooking at the hands of immigrant women.
Watching Netflix’s original documentary series Chef’s Table reminded me of those dinners at Sizzler and how food is more than just fuel, it’s in how we can imbue food and dining with so much meaning and memory, and how we value—or dismiss—who makes the food we so carefully photograph for our Instagram followers. The show presents on a single chef in each episode and tells the story of their journey to realizing their ultimate gastronomic vision. Chef’s Table has all of the right ingredients to create mesmerizing television: beautiful cinematography, a subtly moving soundtrack, incredibly compelling narratives, and, most importantly, endless plates of food you wish you could reach through the screen to taste and smell. It’s also a series focused on the work of a bunch of male chefs.
Chef Niki Nakayama is the runs the gourmet Japanese restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
In the six episodes in the first season, released in 2015, Niki Nakayama, a chef of color, is the only woman chef and out-queer chef featured. (Did I hear someone holler “bingo” on their Marginalized Communities Representation card?) Her episode is made more powerful when we see how the intersections of race and gender have played a big role in the trajectory of her career and the food she makes as a Japanese American woman. It’s in deep contrast to the casual hedonism of French-trained Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, whose credo lies in “freedom of believing only in [himself],” and the central conflict in his narrative is around how he’s no longer having dinner with people he doesn’t like.
It’s unsurprising that the series is dominated by the stories of successful male chefs, because it’s also a show that’s obsessed with Michelin stars (the upscale culinary version of the gold stars your elementary teacher used to pass out) and other awards. Even in an industry in which women and people of color make up a significant portion of the workers, it’s usually white men who are awarded for their work. Another narrative seen throughout the series shows food critics bestowing chefs’ triumphant comeback stories with a single restaurant review—the very food writers who continue to center and celebrate all the same guys and how they’re “redefining how we think about [insert a noun that we eat].” I get it: Innovation is exciting and interesting, especially when the show offers us insight into a chef’s creative process and how they’re able to bring out the “carrotness of a carrot.” But the sameness of the archetypical mad chef romanticizing cuisine in his kitchen laboratory can be boring.
(Suggestion for a Chef’s Table drinking game: Take a shot every time someone says “elevating,” “sophisticated,” or “provocative,” or when an award or critic is mentioned. Double shots when a chef uses tweezers to carefully place a sprig on a plate. Triple shots if the critic who is mentioned is Jonathan Gold, who is perfectly depicted by comedian Hari Kondabolu in the hilarious short web series The Food, written and directed by Fresh Off The Boat’s Randall Park.)
Slovenian chef Ana Ros on the second season of Chef’s Table.
The show’s second season, released in May of this year, was a welcome departure from the whiteness and (to a lesser extent) maleness of the first season. Standout episodes featured Alex Atala, a Brazilian chef with a punk ethos, Slovenian chef Ana Ros, who is completely self-taught, and Indian chef Gaggan Anand, who leads a kitchen in Bangkok with a staff who are a “virtual United Nations.” Even with inclusive casting of chefs, the show never deviates far from reinforcing the idea of who can be a proper chef. These are still chefs in sharp whites extolling their brands of fine dining, like when Anand proclaims, “We’ve kept Indian food as comfort food, and that’s why Indian chefs have not excelled.” It’s not so much that Anand is disparaging comfort food as he is holding up this idea of “excelling” through the professionalization of cooking and thus being awarded and celebrated for the craft.
It would seem that the show’s idea of who can be a proper chef doesn’t include chefs of African descent or Indigenous chefs, since none have been included in the series thus far and in both Chef’s Table: France (which featured four white chefs), and the upcoming season of Chef’s Table. But you know who will be on the fourth season? Ivan Orkin. He’s the white dude who literally wrote a book about how to make ramen. Will the show creators be mindful of editing his episode after the recent backlash around the Bon Appetit pho fiasco? How will they address the fact that the series has not yet highlighted a Japanese ramen chef when they feature Orkin’s famed Tokyo restaurant?
There’s a scene in the Niki Nakayama episode where writer Evan Kleiman, who is a chef herself, talks about the disparate treatment of marginalized chefs and says, “There’s been this whole conversation about women in the kitchen and how they get the short shrift from the media. And it’s true, they do.” It’s not enough to merely acknowledge that there is a lack of representation in the industry. It’s time to start inviting them to have a seat at the Chef’s Table.