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Can food media learn how to talk about them like they’re normal people?
The Netflix series Chef’s Table begins with Massimo Bottura and a Parmigiano-Reggiano problem. It’s 2012, and an earthquake has hit the Emilia-Romagna region, including his city of Modena, and all the cheese has fallen down as the shelves have collapsed. The makers call Massimo, desperate for help, and he quickly creates a cacio e pepe risotto recipe and enlists restaurants around the world to make it. This sells 330,000 wheels, saving livelihoods. “Recipe as social justice,” he says to the camera, with utter seriousness.
Watching this again, after the most recent series Chef’s Table: Pizza, I realize that this show stepped out of the gate onto the wrong foot: Yes, the earthquake was an absolute tragedy: Twenty-seven people died. This recipe helped a lot of people, helped an industry. But the self-seriousness with which it is presented as on par to life-saving action, the utter lack of humor—who is this show for? If a lot of cheese falls down and no one makes a joke, is there a story to tell at all?
I am the audience for this show, and indeed I’ve watched every single episode—now multiple times. I care about food more than I care about anything other than my family (this is where my sister should chime in and say, “You care about food more”); I love restaurants, and I even—despite my better instincts—love fine dining. I love to shop for food, read about food, look at food, cook food, eat food. I hate, though, the idea that the chef is an untouchable being, and that is the premise of this show—an artiste! A savior! “Recipe as social justice”!
“I can’t. They’re worshiping themselves,” my husband said when I tried to get him to watch the show, so he could understand when I say obnoxious things like “New Nordic” or reference the cooking of Francis Mallmann. He could make it through only five minutes of the first episode. That I have now watched them all at least twice suggests an unhealthy fixation, or just too high a tolerance for moments like Grant Achatz in the first episode of season two saying, “We’ve never played with time before.”
When I started to rewatch the entirety of Chef’s Table again from the beginning, I should have been counting the number of times someone said “revolution.” I am being a bit mean, I’ll admit. Everyone loves the episodes about Jeong Kwan and Mashama Bailey, and that is deserved. I even love, perhaps ironically to some, the episodes about butcher Dario Cecchini and Brazilian chef Alex Atala, as they show real relationships to animals who become food. In the Pizza series, the somewhat meta look at Gabriele Bonci being ruled by ego and appetite is truly compelling; it hints at a moment of criticism around what food fame can do to a person, which I wish were more present throughout. When it stops being about who was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine, it can open up aspects of the world that would be otherwise inaccessible to most.
If the show didn’t rely on drama and heightened claims, it could be an interesting document of chefs-deemed-significant. But the basis of the assessments are food media accolades, lists like San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 best, and awards like James Beards. The chefs, too, are obsessed with these things—with who the critics are, with the reviews, with being the best. This show (and by extension, food media), to my mind, should temper this type of obsession and pursuit. Yet the analysis of the chefs’ work is done by food writers who act as talking heads, and they cannot say anything about these people that is not wild hyperbole. It feels so, to use the kids’ parlance, cringe and dated.
For as long as I’ve been paying close attention to restaurants (let’s say 12 years), food media has existed to puff, puff, puff up chefs. When the editor-in-chief of the only glossy food mag I ever worked at, as a temporary copy editor, was leaving her position, her office was filled with flowers from chefs. I remember thinking, Hmmm, is that ethical? Is that how it’s supposed to be? This was the model.
Only in recent years has food media begun to show an interest in knocking chefs down, whether because of sexual assault, toxic behavior, lies about sourcing, or all of the above. What upsets me about this is that the knocking-down is part of the same hype cycle that puffs them up, and without critical media analysis, this will continue. I am not immune, as I’ve said many times before, to puffing up a chef I really love—but I recognize it’s part of a pattern I want to break, a cycle I find destructive to conversations on food, yet it’s also the tenor and texture of the media I wanted to be able to create. It’s not an excuse.
Public conversations should be invitations to learn, exchange. Food media generally takes for granted an audience that is already deeply invested in these issues without inviting anyone new in: It doesn’t make an argument for fine dining (things like barbecue and pizza, these other series, don’t require arguments—we all know why we love them—and thus they’re slightly more inviting to a broad audience); it simply accepts as fact that these restaurants, these chefs, these accolades are compelling in and of themselves. It’s been high time to interrogate why, and that conversation has begun, even if quite gently.
It reminds me of how lately, yes, food magazines and websites are trying to be more inclusive, but there are still things that are treated as understood or truisms: Everyone reading knows and cares who David Chang is; everyone reading needs coaxing to deep-fry at home; everyone reading knows that sun-dried tomatoes stopped being cool ages ago. Never mind that most people don’t; many cultures do as a matter of course; and anything that tastes good cannot go out of fashion.
To pretend that we know things that not everyone knows because we are gourmands—and if this seems old-fashioned, it is still the reigning tone!—only serves to make caring about food seem like a joke. This is why the cooks on TikTok are taking over!
I will say that something the show does that the big mainstream food media often fails at is show a relationship between chefs, ingredients, and agriculture. This is not cool and hasn’t been for a while, much to my chagrin, but this show being endless hagiography reliant on excessive, mostly unearned melodrama doesn’t help make it cool.
And it’s the hagiography and unearned melodrama that doesn’t do the chefs, either, any favors. Just as Massimo wouldn’t have seemed like he was “worshiping himself” if there could’ve been a moment of humor about the cheese, it simply cannot be true that every pizzaiolo featured on Chef’s Table: Pizza has revolutionized pizza, done things radically differently, changed everything!!! And while not in New York—can you imagine? If the structure of the prior sentences seemed jarring, the tonal shifts abrupt, that is how one feels when settling in to hear about the most common, beloved item of food on the planet only to be greeted with tedium and bloviating.
I guess I’m still talking about what I wrote in July 2020, though I hope with less pretension: “Imagine we let restaurants exist the way we let hardware stores exist. Has there ever been a rock star garden-hose expert, a celebrity buyer of hammers and drills?” Imagine.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a mashed batata recipe, a white sweet potato that’s just come into the season in Puerto Rico. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote about why “electrify everything” doesn’t work for Puerto Rico and why market-based solutions aren’t the way forward for renewable energy at The Conversationalist.
Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon. A couple of podcast episodes I’ve loved recently were Elaine Castillo on “Between the Covers” and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies in conversation with Professor Amita Baviskar on political ecology.
I’m using chermoula and harissa a lot, as Villa Jerada kindly sent me some of theirs along with tahini—these are a few of my favorite things! Above are some toasted figs and walnuts, as well as roasted butternut squash, from a brunch I cooked for friends a few weeks ago.