Is Food the Greatest Art Form of All?

The Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table: France explores the impulse to create culinary works of genius.

Lucie Cipolla / Netflix

The tendency with a show like Chef’s Table—a series that frequently delivers high-definition shots of sumptuous, immaculately presented meals—is to refer to it as “food porn,” lumping it in with, say, late-night Arby’s ads, or BuzzFeed videos of Oreos being smothered with molten cheesecake. Food porn is omnipresent these days; it’s excessive, it’s wanton. It’s strings of cheese glistening in slow motion while a pizza is pulled teasingly apart, or endless layers of roast beef collapsing gracefully onto a bun, pink and exposed.

But Chef’s Table, whose spinoff, Chef’s Table: France, debuts Friday on Netflix, is as far removed from such lowbrow gluttony as Guy Savoy is from Guy Fieri. For one thing, the documentary series, which spends each 50-minute episode profiling some of the world’s most extraordinary chefs, isn’t really about food at all—it’s about art. More explicitly, it’s about the strange and seemingly random circumstances that coalesce to produce unparalleled creative talents. The show focuses on each subject’s history not to pad out each episode with personal detail, but to reveal how much great food is a product of the soul of the person who made it. “A cuisine reflects what you have inside of you,” says the French chef Adeline Grattard in one new episode. “It’s an expression of your inner life.”

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.

This particular brand of particular innovative genius—with a touch of lunacy—has surely been part of culinary pioneering throughout the ages (consider, if you will, the absurd bravery of the first person to pry open and guzzle an oyster). The joy of watching Chef’s Table: France is to see how vividly impossible visions or abstract thoughts can become works of art, as intensely flavorful as they are visually striking. Most great art, after all, exists to appeal to one or two senses. But food works to entice all five: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. These four episodes offer a compelling case that in crafting such exquisite and fleeting experiences, the most singular chefs are staking their claim as the greatest artists of all.