Chef's Table

Posted on January 24, 2016

Last updated on January 31, 2016

I have been recently recommended to watch a new television series Chef’s Table and now having seen it I am also recommending it - not just to people interested in cooking or haute-cuisine, but to anyone seeking excellence or wanting to see what it takes to get to the top in a specific discipline.

This is not your standard cooking show where you would see people frantically trying to finish a recipe, and it’s not even a documentary about the restaurants themselves - it’s far from that. As the title suggests, the show is entirely about the chefs behind some of the world’s best and most interesting restaurants. What makes them tick? How did they get to where they are? What kind of qualities do they exhibit?

It is fascinating to watch and get an insight into the stories of the chefs. Whenever going to a restaurant, even one of a fancier type, most people will never think of the person behind the food, their stories, their upbringing, their philosophy, and how all of that affects what they put out on the table. There is certainly a connection between the viewpoint of a chef and the way he creates dishes and it will become clear to you after watching just two or three episodes of “Chef’s Table”. You’ll see that one chef’s mission is to modernize and thus improve centuries-old Italian traditions, while another will make it his life’s mission to a create a sustainable farm and only cook whatever the land and its animals produce.

Chef’s Table

Chef’s Table

1 The Stories

In the paragraphs below I took some notes when watching the show to try and draw some common themes on the characters of the chefs.

I definitely urge you to find the time to watch the series. The production quality is very high, with beautiful on-location shoots in places like remote Patagonia or the tight cobble-stoned streets of Modena in Italy. Combined with gorgeous shots of food backtracked by classical music, each episode will transport you to the life of that chef.

1.1 Massimo Bottura - Osteria Francescana di Modena

Massimo’s philosophy is to take centuries-old traditional Italian cuisine, like the gnocchi or tortellini your mom used to make, and modernize the recipes, concentrating and bringing out the flavours even more than the best traditional Italian food you have had.

It looks to me like all the successful chefs depicted here have certain qualities like that of a free spirit, of someone willing to take risks on themselves and on others, and just knowing that everything will work out. After spending some time in NYC where he met his future wife Laura, Massimo moved back to Modena. He decided to have Laura come over, but not ten days have passed since she got there and Massimo got the opportunity of a lifetime to go work with Alain Ducasse in Paris and left Modena. Love won and he eventually went back to visit Laura and proposed to her. They decided to move to Modena and open a restaurant. The place they found and bought was “Osteria Francescana”. Massimo and Laura sold everything they owned and poured it into the restaurant. Then a nothing, and now a three Michelin star and number three in San Pelegrino world’s Top 50 restaurants.

Shortly after opening, an old lady with vision problems named Lidia who lived nearby went it to the restaurant and said she knows how to cook and she might be of help. Massimo gave her a chance and Lidia has been at the Osteria ever-since, transferring her knowledge of traditional homely Italian cuisine to Massimo and his team.

With a lot of hard work and facing ridicule by the locals and food critics who were not philosophically aligned with Massimo’s views on food, the world eventually caught on to what he was trying to do. “Osteria Francescana” is definitely on my to-go list now.

1.1.1 Character traits

1.1.2 Tidbits I learned

1.2 Dan Barber - Blue Hill

“I believe strongly that good cooking is physical. It demands conditioning. Because of the drudgery, the hours and the exhaustion, it does attract people who are attracted to a certain type of abuse. It’s exhilarating and the challenge is how much you can withstand.”

Blue Hill are actually two restaurants. We have Blue Hill New York just around Washington Square Park, and the main restaurant that Dan is famous for, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The farm is located around an hours drive from central Manhattan and is well known for its farm-to-table style of dining. Everything that you are served there has come from the farm that you see around you. Dan has his own cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, together with a very large assortment of vegetables that he continuously tries to improve the flavour of. By not focusing on the volume of the vegetable but on the flavour, he says he’s created a much tastier squash that wows customers.

For the whole interesting story, I urge you to watch the episode. Here are some of Dan’s traits that I picked up on.

1.2.1 Character Traits

“Failure is very important. It introduces you to the idea that you don’t want to return to.”

1.2.2 Tidbits I learned

1.3 Francis Mallmann

“My life has been a path at the edge of uncertainty. Today, I think we educate kids to be settled in a comfortable chair. You have your job, you have your little car, you have a place to sleep. And the dreams are dead. You don’t grow on a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life and it needs a lot of work and it needs a lot of risk.”

You can tell from this episode that Francis is someone who really embodies the spirit of freedom. He’s lived in Patagonia and sometimes cooks there in nature with a fire, but flies 3-5 times a week to different other places like Buenos Aires or the streets of New York. He loves to use fire and coal and even cooks some things with such a char that some others would consider it burned.

I most definitely urge you to watch this episode for the beautiful Patagonian landscapes but of course also for more of the fascinating story of Francis.

1.3.1 Character Traits

1.3.2 Tidbits I learned

1.4 Niki Nakayama - n/naka

“Never stop learning as a chef. If you think you are done, you should just quit.”

Niki was born and raised in Los Angeles and started her culinary career there. After some time she explored restaurants in Japan where she learned to prepare Kaiseki, a multi-course Japanese dinner using the best available ingredients.

Convinced that she can start out on her own, she came back to LA to open a successful sushi restaurant. She wanted to try out a less explored path and opened a Kaiseki restaurant, n/naka. Family was urging her to consider staying with sushi which is a well trodden road but she needed something new. I will definitely try attending next time I’m in LA.

1.4.1 Character Traits

1.4.2 Tidbits I learned

1.5 Ben Shewry - Attica

“I get a feeling of elation when creating something new. It’s greater than almost any sensation in your life”.

Ben was raised in New Zealand by family that didn’t have much monetarily but more than made up for it in family spirit and the food he got to eat. He very much credits his parent for parts of his current success. Their gift to him was a sense of self-belief and their time – as Ben notes, one of the most valuable things they could have given to him. When he was young, Ben didn’t have things like a TV and spent his time in more creative ways like cooking.

After moving to Australia, Ben first worked as a cook before deciding to take the big risk and get his own restaurant Attica. Owing $150k when he started, it was a struggle. It didn’t help that his choice of a blend of Thai and modern European cuisine didn’t fare well with the locals. Sometimes they would get in to the restaurant at 7am to get ready for the 6pm service and then the restaurant would barely fill up. Someone came in once, looked at the menu and pronounced “Whoever wrote this fucking menu must be on speed”. Looking at these comments Ben saw that something needed to change. With that he introduced a new menu based on Australian ingredients, and only then truly felt that he is inventing a style of his own and not just doing copy-cat recipes.

Like with some of the other chefs, Ben exhibits a lot of drive for creativity, success, and working very hard to make both of these things happen. Now with a family and two kids, Ben asks whether it’s worth it:

“If you are a very driven person and you want to achieve a lot, there is a point where you can hurt a lot of people”

“Is it worth it?”

Is it worth spending the extra time in the restaurant and let the fleeting childhood of your children pass you by? Massimo from Osteria had similar concerns.

1.6 Character Traits

1.6.1 Tidbits I learned

1.7 Magnus Nilsson - Faviken

“It’s stupid to do things if they are not good. I usually make my big life decisions spontaneously.”

Magnus Nilsson is the head chef at Faviken, currently ranked number 25 in the San Pellegrino rankings. The interesting thing is that this restaurant is not in a major hub like Paris, London, or New York City, but in rural Sweden. You really need to go out of your way to reach it. During your three hour meal with only 12 total tables in the restaurant, chef Magnus Nilsson will present you with no less than thirty dishes on his rustic Scandinavian tasting menu. It shows that if you are doing something amazing the word will spread and you will have people from all over the world making the expedition to eat at your restaurant.

1.7.1 Character Traits

1.7.2 Tidbits I learned

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