That such thoughtfulness is accompanied by close-ups of impossibly extravagant dishes—glossy squid enveloped by wafer-thin slices of cucumber and sweet-potato noodles, an improbably engineered chocolate millefeuille—is what makes the show so compelling. And oddly soothing. As with PBS’s The Great British Baking Show, there’s something remarkably calming about watching humans execute dazzling feats of culinary ingenuity from the comforts of the couch. Each moment of high drama ends in happy resolution; each difficult period in a chef’s life is revealed to have buffeted his or her genius in some way.
While two previous seasons have featured chefs all over the world, from remote Patagonian islands to downtown Melbourne, this iteration focuses on France. It makes sense: France is the birthplace of haute cuisine, the Michelin Guide, Escoffier. But Chef’s Table: France seems determined to disrupt the art of French cooking, focusing on chefs who are subverting the country’s traditions in their own distinct ways. The first episode focuses on Alain Passard, who shocked the Paris food scene when he took meat and fish off the menu at his three-starred restaurant L’Arpège. The second follows Alexandre Couillon, who created a culinary destination out of his isolated, water-locked village. The third is dedicated to Grattard, whose fusion of French and Chinese cooking became an unlikely hit in a tiny Paris teahouse called Yam‘Tcha. And the last features Michel Troisgros, a chef in the small town of Roanne wrestling with his father’s legacy.
The final episode is directed by the show’s creator, David Gelb, and it seems to have the most direct parallels to Gelb’s stunning 2010 debut documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That film, which almost certainly inspired Chef’s Table, followed the 85-year-old artisan working in a 10-seat Tokyo sushi restaurant with three Michelin stars. Jiro’s incomparable creativity, his fanaticism, his lifelong quest to perfect sushi as an art form, and his complex relationship with his two sons made the movie a critical hit. Chef’s Table shares many of its best qualities—a meditative, almost loving treatment of its subjects; stunning visuals; and a meticulously selected soundtrack (the theme is taken from Max Richter’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). But above all, the show has Jiro’s deep curiosity when it comes to craft. How does a dreamer turn visions into food? How can something so ubiquitous—the simple act of eating—become something akin to a religious experience?
The subjects of Chef’s Table: France have varied backgrounds and histories, but what each has in common is a desire to translate experiences into food. Troisgros, while visiting Italy, happened across an exhibition of work by the founder of Spatialism, Lucio Fontana, and became fixated on replicating Fontana’s signature slashed canvases into a dish composed only of milk and black truffle. Couillon’s experiments with seafood stem from an impulse to capture the essence of his remote island, Noirmoutier, on the plate: One of his dishes is a crunchy seaweed with oyster cream, another incorporates squid-ink broth to imitate the disastrous effects of an oil spill on local habitats.