“Cooking shows have taught us, changed us and changed with us,” writes Kathleen Collins in Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows. “… they have evolved to satisfy our yearning for quality, affordable, environmentally and health conscious, easy to prepare yet sophisticated food.”
While there may not be enough hours in the day or dollars in our wallets to attempt to replicate each tasty treat we see on TV, Collins believes that the shows succeed because “everyone eats, knows something about food, and can relate to the endeavor”.
It has been more than half-a-century since the world was first introduced to the formula, first on radio, and then TV, and the public has devoured them ever since. Cooking shows are our comfort food. American channel The Food Network attracts around a million viewers per night, while a couple of years ago the Daily Mail counted 434.5 cookery hours on British television in just one week. But have we now reached peak Ramsay and his ilk?
Well, there’s always room for dessert.
In 2012, filmmaker David Gelb released Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an inexplicably compelling and universally lauded feature-length documentary that told the story of an 85-year-old Tokyo-based sushi master and his quest for epicurean perfection. Last year Gelb turned his cinematic eye for culinary beauty to another project, Chef’s Table, an equally poetic take on the kitchen which has garnered equal critical acclaim. The documentary series, aired on Netflix, sees crews traverse the globe in search of passionate chefs with engrossing life tales to share.
“We wanted the chefs to be pretty much obsessed with what they’re doing,” Gelb tells the Los Angles Times. “We didn’t want chefs who have a ton of restaurants but who are really focused on the restaurants they do have and are trying to make them perfect. We wanted chefs who mastered the fundamentals, then broke the rules of tradition and made their own cuisine.”
Subjects include Dan Barber, an “intellectual chef” who pioneered the farm-to-table movement and Massimo Bottura one of the world’s best who “kind of reinvented the traditional cuisine of Modena, Italy”. But all chosen chefs are by no means international superstars. Gelb says that although the show is set in the world of food, his concern is not with how the chefs cook, but rather why.
For its latest outing—season three—Chef’s Table finds itself in France where Alain Passard of Arpège hopes the documentaries might inspire younger generations to take up his art. “It’s a great opportunity given to me by David [Gelb], to get into my professional intimacy,” he tells Conde Nast Traveler. “… Isn’t it great to be able to talk about what you love? Thirty years of happiness—no weariness, only enthusiasm.” In one episode, Gallic chef Adeline Grattard reveals that a cuisine reflects what you have inside of you, that “it’s an expression of your inner life”.
Such has been the show’s success that Netflix has signed Gelb for three seasons more.
“Perseverance is a common thread between the shows.” he says in an interview with Bon Appetit. That he wants people to watch these films, then examine their own lives and dining habits and see how it changes their perspective. “These chefs’ journeys and how they got there will reveal a lot lessons for people who are aspiring to do creative things.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces