Lucie Cipolla/Netflix

Chef’s Table Is High-End Food Porn With Empty Calories

The Netflix docu-series marinates in our fetishistic obsession with food, but doesn’t look deep enough into a complicated industry

Despite its documentary intent, Chef’s Table is a near-total retreat from the world. Transfigured into art, food is unrecognizable as such: an apple is cut into fabric, tree parts are served as ice cream, and a fish spine roasted into a tawny golden-brown garnishes a single, square bite of fish — a sight as deliriously unreal as a tab of acid. Created by Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb, the Netflix series is the height of food porn, in that the spinning, ravishingly lit plates on screen bear very little resemblance to what we have in our homes every day.

Returning for a Francophilic third season on Friday, September 2, Chef’s Table sticks close to what made Jiro a sleeper hit: the themes of inspiration, innovation, personal sacrifice, and superhuman dedication. Each 50-minute episode profiles a world-renowned chef, offering light biographies peppered with tales of early struggle. But it’s the father-son battle of wills that made Jiro so memorable; the sushi master is as forbidding and exacting a father as he is a chef. With four to six installments to produce each year, though, Gelb apparently doesn’t have the time to craft complicated stories. Chef’s Table is barely shaded hero worship, indistinguishable except in form to glowing “about us” copy on a restaurant website.

As foodie culture has proliferated in recent years, so has the range of issues we now deem germane to high dining: sustainability, cultural appropriation, sexism in the kitchen, financial access, etc. With so many chefs to spotlight each season, the docu-series could have covered much of this ground to provide a fuller look at haute cuisine’s place in the world. Instead, Chef’s Table takes the artificial every-man-is-an-island approach (and it’s mostly white men who are the show’s subjects). Like that perfectly symmetrical polygon of fish, everything knotty or chewy about each chef is cut off to create an antiseptically neat product.

That withdrawal from relevance is further heightened by this year’s French setting. Shots of quaint brick fireplaces and inviting Paris streets in tasteful slo-mo are so achingly idyllic the French tourism office could take the next year off if they wanted to. But most viewers probably won’t be able to forget that these close-ups of ostensibly life-altering dishes are the nearest we’ll ever get to them. With restaurants to run, the third season’s Michelin-starred chefs — Alain Passard, Michel Troisgros, Adeline Grattard, and Alexandre Couillon — aren’t familiar faces from Chopped or Top Chef like earlier subjects Dan Barber or Grant Achatz; we’ll have to make the journey to them. The pilgrimage to France that Season 3 asks us to imagine might be delightful escapism for some viewers. For me, it’s yet more wealth porn, reminding us once again that food has become another luxury item we’re taught to want but can’t afford.

Creative metamorphosis is the other big draw at Chef’s Table, but the show isn’t wonky enough, even with its critic talking heads rhapsodizing in hyperboles, to clarify what we’d actually taste if we were the type to drop a grand on a meal. Passard’s L'Arpège is notable for its vegetable-centrism, but the Chinese-French fusion at Grattard’s yam'Tcha doesn’t seem remotely new, while the Freudian conflict roiling behind the scenes at La Maison Troisgros is a faint echo of the one in Jiro. Each episode is padded with glamour shots of chefs picking fruit, meat and veggies being cut, and waiters delivering dishes to delighted customers. Tension is a rare treat, since none of these chefs would be featured on the show if they weren’t runaway successes.

Only Couillon’s La Marine, located on the previously forgotten peninsula Noirmouthier, seems to have a story worth telling, with the chef’s rediscovery of seafood in Japan, building a culinary capital from nothing, and conscientious hiring of female cooks to combat the lopsided gender relations in gourmet kitchens. A food writer wipes away a tear after a bite of Couillon’s dish — a rare glimpse of honesty in a highly synthetic display.