Reviewed by Robert Brown
Lovely to look at, impossibly delightful to hold, the Netflix mini-series “Chef’s Table: France” has as its primary concern the taste of food which, unlike paintings, prints, movies, photographs and the written word, can’t be grasped and retained, but only implied. It is a misfortune shared with every manifestation of “food porn”. The people behind the series are therefore dependent on a kind of photographic intensity, if not distortion, and a hyperbolic narrative in which restaurant cooking is talked about in some mystical and spiritual way, which even in the fairly-recent past has been discussed that way. Executive Producer David Gelb thus presents his four chefs as people close to demi- gods who project little knowledge beyond cooking and running a restaurant, which is not to say that the career stories of the four chefs Alain Passard, Alexandre Couillon, Adeline Grattard and Michel Troisgros are without interest. Still, I strongly suspect that the less you know about gastronomy, the more you’ll be taken in by the hyper-saturation and the extreme close-ups of the dishes, the fast and slow-motion photography, and the staged dialogue and machinations, the most ridiculous of which is the members of the Troisgros kitchen brigade walking military-like into the kitchen one behind the other, and each putting on his toque after taking a couple of steps.
Having watched the series twice, I can’t fathom what the goal of it is beyond the story telling. With about 30 seconds out of over three hours of running time that depict diners at a table, “Chef’s Table: France” isn’t a practical guide;it doesn’t linger long enough to encompass any aspects of how the chef makes dishes; and there is no idea during when in the year each episode takes place in despite a snippet of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” being the opening- credits theme music. There is also little explication of the products that the chefs use and why they use them. Other than creating a confection along the lines of an armchair travel documentary and showing chefs in action or talking to the camera, the intent seems to be leading the unsophisticated into believing that cooking at a very-high level is a legitimate, somehow spiritual art form. But does it rise to the level with composing serious music, creating a painting, writing poetry, or choreographing a ballet?(The supreme moment of this manifestation occurs when culinary author and guidebook publisher Gilles Pudlowski describes Alexandre Couillon’s dishes as “like a painting” without saying if they are like good paintings or bad ones, or if someone has made a frame for it). Making the argument with an art historian, musicologist or those steeped in esthetics that high-end cooking is high art is apt to be a losing one.
Not all of the four stories are equally compelling, although none are inconsequential. Alexandre Couillon’s documents how after seven years of struggling he brought into prominence his parent’s tourist restaurant on Noirmoutier, a quasi-desolate island off the Atlantic coast of Brittany except in seaso. When he was ready to call it quits, the Michelin fairy arrived just in the nick of time to sprinkle the dust of a star, which was enough to attract badly-needed clientele and keep Restaurant La Marine’s doors open so that Couillon now stands on the threshold of triple stardom.
An uncharacteristically-serious Alain Passard, a chef whose terrific cuisine I know well from when he began his career as a chef-restaurateur, goes through what is now a well-worn, decade-old story about how he took the risk of having the Tire People demote him by switching to a nearly all-vegetable menu. The footage of his two large vegetable gardens outside Paris makes for good viewing, but there is this nagging question of did he do this at least in part to save money on his food costs. We’ll never know. But at least he’s a chef who has never diluted his brand with outside ventures, and since taking over the premises of Alain Senderens’ L’Archestrate in 1986, he has never moved to larger quarters, as David Gelb lets us know.
The history of Restaurant Troisgros is an illustrious one, and Gelb did well to include it. It is poignant to see the 88-year-old Pierre Troisgros, father of the head chef Michel Troisgros, in the background. He is the younger half of Les Frères Troisgros whose existence came to a premature end with the death at age 57 in 1983 of the older, more culinarily-gifted Jean Troisgros. There are some references to past tensions and disagreements between father and son, and you sense an intense forlornness as Pierre accompanies his son and two grandsons to the commune of Ouches, 10 km. from Roanne where Restaurant Troisgros with a spa, swimming pool and 17 bedrooms will be no longer be after 87 years, as the restaurant’s tag line once said, “En Face de la Gare”.
Those of us who were fortunate to dine at Troisgros at the height of their fame between 1968 and 1983 remember the amusing and jovial Pierre stopping at everyone’s table to draw a happy face on your copy of the menu and sign it along with the phrase “Bu et Approuvé” (“drunk and approved”), a play on the wording beside every legal document where one signs, “Lu et Approuvé” (“read and approved”) In contrast, son Michel comes across as a dour, unsmiling opposite. He doesn’t appear to be much for sentiment either, as he removed the most famous dish of La Nouvelle Cuisine Francaise, Saumon a l’Oseille (salmon in sorrel) from his restaurant’s menu (but, as I found out elsewhere, due to return to the new restaurant), although he prepares it in front of the camera. (Whenever I confront a dish overburdened with ingredients I want to tell the chef “Think saumon a l’oseille”). Whatever his culinary talents may be, his restaurant no longer rises above nearly all of the rest in France.
If there were a series MVP, my votewould go to Adeline Grattard, the owner-chef of the small French-Chinese fusion restaurant Yam’tcha in Paris. She has a “visage” that makes you want to give her a big hug—not glamorous and cold, but warm and friendly, a face that makes me think of Audrey Tatou in the title role of “Amèlie”. Also, her story of success is the most wide-ranging (some of the episode takes place in Hong Kong) and unlikely, centering on her marriage to a Chinese, a sensitive man who specializes in selling tea in a tiny shop or stall and acting as sort of a tea sommelier at the restaurant; learning Chinese cooking in Hong Kong without speaking the language; working under Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance and being discovered and put on the map by Francois Simon, the restaurant writer for Le Monde who noticed Yam’tcha as he was strolling by. To my mind, this was clearly the most compelling and honest portrayal of the entire project, very much because of Grattard’s effervescent personality.
Early 2017 will bring another six episodes of “Chef’s Table”. If you’re getting withdrawal symptoms waiting, I can suggest that you get a weekly fix from TV5Monde or, better still, scores of previous shows from the TV5Monde website and YouTube by watching “Les Escapades de Petitrenaud”. Sure, the production values are not as edgy, intense, or slick, but in the 26 minutes devoted to a French chef, you’ll be swept along by former circus clown Jean-Luc Petitrenaud’s hi-jinx and high spirits, and learn more about a particular chef than you would from “Chef’s Table:France” in terms of how his featured chef makes dishes and runs his restaurant while gathering around his family, local winemakers and suppliers all having a grand old time eating what everyone brings to the table. If only we could taste it.