In the history of food television, it's fair to talk in terms of the period before Chef's Table and the period after the series débuted on Netflix in 2015. The Emmy-winning show is about as close as you can get to eating at a restaurant without physically being there. In some ways it's better: how many of the Michelin-starred restaurants that are featured are you likely to eat at in one lifetime? Watching Chef's Table, viewers have the rare opportunity to step into the kitchen, see what happens before service, and hear how a chef's brain works.
While the series directed by David Gelb (who also made Jiro Dreams of Sushi) is sometimes ridiculed for its heightened sense of drama and portrayal of chefs as demigods, there's no denying the beautiful photography and (mostly) fascinating stories of chefs' careers.
Are there enough women chefs featured (nine out of 30)? No. And cultural diversity does not abound, although has improved. The producers, for better or worse, have drawn heavily from the ranks of the World's 50 Best and other such lists. But all that aside, it is a well-made, thorough and informative documentary series.
Earlier this year, I watched all 26 episodes of Chef's Table, mostly over the course of one, admittedly painful, week. With the début of season five, this ranking has been updated.
If you're thinking of chunking every episode in one go, my advice to you is to reconsider your approach. Chef's Table is at its best when you experience a sense of wonder at each chef's story. Those gorgeously plated dishes lose their impact when you've seen four dégustations-worth flash across your screen. This is a beautiful example of documentary filmmaking that takes a serious look at food and its place in contemporary (and ancient) cultures, provoking thoughtful questions along the way. Please, read this guide and then consume Chef's Table in moderation.
A quick note on the list: what follows is a highly subjective ranking of each episode from worst to best. This is a comment on their quality as pieces of television, not an assessment of the chefs themselves, their restaurants or their ability. All are highly talented individuals. How their story is told is another matter.
30. GAGGAN ANAND, SEASON 2, EPISODE 6
As much as I love an underdog, I couldn't root for Gaggan Anand. His journey from an impoverished childhood in India to running the top restaurant in Asia is an impressive one, no doubt. But this leap was only sketched in vague outlines in his Chef's Table episode. Likewise, the details of his dishes and how exactly they reflect Indian ingredients, and other cuisines, were skimmed over. Why does he use matcha? Why are there words such as 'samurai' in the names of dishes? I also wanted to hear about the food from a variety of perspectives, rather than those of a single World's 50 Best chair. Why not interview Ferran Adrià, who Anand interned under and cites as a pivotal influence on the direction he took when opening Gaggan in Bangkok? While Annand is obviously a very ambitious and switched-on individual, I was left unsatisfied by the story that he told.
29. ENRIQUE OLVERA, SEASON 2, EPISODE 4
I was pumped for this episode. I love Mexico and Mexican cuisine and would love to visit Olvera's restaurant Pujol. But it was just. So. Boring. I was also shocked by how dated and Eurocentric many of the statements from guests Daniel Humm and Colman Andrews sounded, from their surprise at seeing tacos on a fine-dining menu to the frequent statements about Mexican food appearing simple. Thankfully, Olvera is in the limelight for most of the episode, talking about the beauty of highly seasonal ingredients such as flying ants and the rich culinary traditions of Mexico, refined over many centuries. But this is also the episode's downfall: Olvera's mild manner is not the stuff of gripping television.
28. DOMINIQUE CRENN, SEASON 2, EPISODE 3
Why was this episode so unremarkable? Dominique Crenn's life is full of experiences unfamiliar to many people: being adopted, losing a parent at a young age, running a two-Michelin star restaurant. Despite her food being inspired by memory and her relationships, it felt so cerebral that there was a barrier erected between chef and viewer. Perhaps it's something that has to be experienced at Atelier Crenn where she serves, as she says, not a menu but a conversation. And that means a menu written in the form of a poem, where each line corresponds to a dish. Facepalm.
27. WILL GOLDFARB, SEASON 4, EPISODE 4
I hate this kind of high-brow, tricky dessert. I hate the names of these dishes ("pandan-bert" anyone?). I hate the name of Goldfarb's restaurant, Room 4 Dessert, with its late-nineties sensibility. And maybe this is the Australian in me, but can you get more Eat-Pray-predictable than an American moving to Bali after a crisis? Among all this hate, I had one (fleeting) moment of sympathy for Goldfarb when his partner pulled out of the original New York location of Room 4 Dessert without warning. But by the end of the episode, probably spurred on by his ridiculous "day at the beach" dessert, I was back to the hating.
26. ALAIN PASSARD, *CHEF'S TABLE FRANCE*, EPISODE 1
You could create a drinking game around the number of times Alain Passard talks about the importance of "the gesture" in cooking. Frankly, I found Passard and this whole episode to be a case study of Chef's Table missteps. From his portrayal as the mysterious artist figure to knowing he was destined for a career as a chef and feeling inspired by the cooking of his grandmother, Passard feels like a living, breathing caricature of a Michelin-starred chef. While all those things may be true to Passard's experience, they're heard so often it felt like this was a wasted opportunity to move beyond them and get at the real story, or even give someone else (ahem, someone more interesting) the floor.
25. CORRADO ASSENZA, SEASON 4, EPISODE 2
My advice for enjoying this piece of television – one of the less spellbinding episodes in the series – is to mute the sound, turn off the subtitles and choose a soundtrack to accompany joyous scenes of ice-cream eating, cannoli-making, precision pastry work and strolls through the Sicilian countryside. Ahh.
24. DAN BARBER, SEASON 1, EPISODE 2
As well as hearing about farm-to-table cooking in depth, in this episode you'll also see Ruth Reichl in full flight, uttering phrases like "the carrot-ness of carrot", and catch a cameo of Nancy Silverton in her La Brea Bakery days, when she hilariously fires Dan Barber because she's afraid he'll run her bakery into the ground. Fast-forward 20 years and Silverton has left behind the now multinational-owned La Brea and Barber is milling his own flour and baking fine-looking loaves, as well as working with farmers to develop new varieties of wheat and other crops such as tomatoes. Barber tells a compelling story of what went wrong with food and restaurants during the 20th century, putting into sharp relief the importance of his efforts to return to more sustainable food systems in the USA. And yet, I really struggled to like this guy. His intense focus in the kitchen quickly translates into a terrifying temper that is, on the whole, off-putting.
23. ALEX ATALA, SEASON 2, EPISODE 2
During this episode I wrote, "If I hear one more chef say they're taking traditional ingredients and combining them with French technique to bring them to a contemporary audience…" Alex Atala may have caught me during a particularly long stretch of watching because I actually think he's a pretty cool guy and a deep thinker. I appreciate his re-evaluation of what's valued in fine-dining, I think his work with Amazonian communities to become economically independent is commendable and yet I found it hard to get sucked in to this story. There were some captivating shots of Atala scaling and filleting a huge pirarucu, a river fish found in the Amazon, as well as some cool scenes of Atala making manioc flour with an indigenous woman in the jungle. But none of this changed my life. It's not you, Alex, it's me.
22. GRANT ACHATZ, SEASON 2, EPISODE 1
How much fun would it be to work as a waiter at Alinea? Pillows filled with nutmeg-scented air! Edible helium balloons! Chicken that's secretly cooking at the table while diners are eating other courses. Grant Achatz's food is big on surprises, but it's also big on concepts (perhaps more so after tongue cancer affected his sense of taste). We see him tossing around ideas for new dishes with his sous chefs, discussing everything from art to physics, drawing diagrams, asking if they can expand time. "That's some Stephen Hawking shit," says Mike Bagale, Alinea's then executive chef. For me, this was a 30-minute tug-of-war between loving and hating Achatz's postmodern style of cooking. Strap yourself in.
21. MASSIMO BOTTURA, SEASON 1, EPISODE 1
The love story of the series, this episode looks at the creative relationship between husband-and-wife team Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore, who is the collaborator on many of the chef's projects, from cookbooks to the charity Food for Soul. There are some cute moments between the pair, especially when Gilmore teases Bottura about his ego when they first met, a period when he rocked some flamboyant pirate fashion (fast-forward to 24:20 for some brilliantly bad looks and full-throttle posing). I definitely tried to appreciate Bottura's reputation as an enfant terrible of Italian cuisine, who shook up Modenese traditions and took Emilia-Romagna's ingredients out of their familiar contexts, but I feel as though something was lost in translation. Many of the dishes felt like intellectual posturing, with names and presentation that felt a little too 10 years ago.
20. ANA ROŠ, SEASON 2, EPISODE 5
I really wanted to like this episode more than I did. My respect for Ana Roš was bolstered by hearing her speak at a food festival last year about how hard she's worked (while raising a family, to boot) to achieve recognition as a chef and put Slovenia's food and culture on the map. While Roš's home country is front-and-centre in this gorgeously shot episode, her story isn't told with the same energy as others in the series, which is a shame given the fact that her path to being named World's Best Female Chef didn't start with a childhood epiphany about the taste of her grandmother's food, unlike many other chef's tales.
19. BO SONGVISAVA, SEASON 5, EPISODE 3
Bo Songvisava has a way of tasting food that keeps you on a knife edge. After popping something in her mouth, she'll hold her tasting spoon with disdain, screw up her face slightly and eventually decide whether it passes muster. When it doesn't, she'll call you "dear" as she delivers her criticisms. Man, it must suck when Songvisava hates one of your sauces. The Thai chef's highly trained palate is one of many qualities her mentor at Nahm, David Thompson, praises in this episode, along with her not insignificant achievement of getting wealthy Bangkokers to eat at a fine-dining Thai restaurant, Bo.Lan, which she opened in 2009 with her Australian husband, Dylan Jones. The pair only cook with organic, Thai ingredients, with a ferocious commitment to preserving traditions and foodways for future generations by doing things not, as Jones says, the hard way, but the right way. This episode could have been even more interesting if we saw Songvisava prepare one of her dishes, talking us through its origins and why it's made it on to her menu. But the episode instead focuses on the dedicated producers who are behind many great chefs – a worthwhile story.
18. ALEXANDRE COUILLON, CHEF'S TABLE FRANCE, EPISODE 2
Alexandre Couillon knows how it feels to be an outsider. Born in Noirmoutier, a tiny island off France's western coastline that was only connected to the mainland by bridge in the 1970s, the chef also grew up with a surname that means moron. Shaking it off Taylor Swift-style, Couillon now runs one of the country's premier seafood restaurants, La Marine. Those who love the wilderness will dig this episode. You'll feel like you're there on the dock as Couillon tastes oysters, inspects beautiful spotted fish and picks up live crabs with knobbly bodies and legs that wave at you. He's not the most compelling TV talent but the chef, a father to two young girls (one of whom has aspirations to be a chef herself), does get a gold star for an unwavering zero-tolerance stance on bullying.
17. VIRGILIO MARTÍNEZ, SEASON 3, EPISODE 6
One of Chef's Table's strengths is letting natural beauty do the talking in episodes such as this one (see also Ben Shewry, Alex Atala and Francis Mallmann). Here, that also includes Virgilio Martínez's big brown eyes. But that's not all that's going on: Martínez is on a mission to discover the culinary traditions of his native Peru and, after several years of running Central, his sense of wonder clearly hasn't faded. He speaks of the period of guerrilla war and military crackdown when the country's various regions were virtually isolated from one another; food from Cusco was as exotic to a Lima native as larb gai. "In Peru, we always have a sense of the unknown," he says. This is also one of the few episodes where the people behind the chef are paid their dues: Martínez's partner, chef Pia León, and his sister Malena Martínez, who oversees the research arm of the restaurant, Mater Iniciativa.
16. MUSA DAĞDEVIREN, SEASON 5, EPISODE 2
Never heard of Musa Dağdeviren? Chances are you've eaten many of the dishes he serves at his flagship restaurant Çiya Kebab, although perhaps not prepared with quite so much skill. Pides with orbs of just-set yolks, lahmacun and, of course, kebabs (over a hundred varieties) are cooked according to centuries-old traditions, then served with classical music playing in the background – a trick Dağdeviren employed to get people to take his food seriously when he opened the restaurant in 1987. There are gorgeous scenes of rural Turkey throughout this episode, not least when the chef and a group of shepherds eat freshly squeezed goat's milk by scooping it up with fig leaves, re-enacting a way of eating that has survived for hundreds of years. That's Dağdeviren's passion: documenting his country's cuisine, shaped as it is by many religions and ethnicities, with an eye to preserving its traditions.
This episode also taught me to never watch Chef's Table with the dubbing on. I watched half with and half without, and the voice-overs made everything sound insincere. Subtitles every time.
15. MAGNUS NILSSON, SEASON 1, EPISODE 6
As someone who also wears their hair long, I found myself wondering how Magnus Nilsson gets away with not tying up his shoulder-length locks when he cooks. Is this cherub-like man immune to the moulting that mere mortals experience? Nilsson, chef at Sweden's restaurant-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, Fäviken, certainly occupies a higher plane than many of us. Through his food, Nilsson considers everything from industrial farming practices to the preservation of culture for future generations. His intelligence is clear, but his intolerance for mistakes is also frequently displayed. Thoughts I had during this episode included, "what music does Magnus listen to while he drives? I bet it's white noise or industrial techno" and "are Magnus Nilsson and Francis Mallmann related?"
14. ADELINE GRATTARD, CHEF'S TABLE FRANCE, EPISODE 3
French-born chef Adeline Grattard is enamoured of Chinese cuisine. And not just the food, but tea and the importance surrounding it in Chinese culture. Following her passion all the way to Hong Kong, where she lived for two years with her husband Chi Wah Chan (who was born there), she brought back everything she learned about Cantonese techniques and ingredients and opened Yam'Tcha in Paris in 2009. The restaurant offers a tea pairing, overseen by Wah Chan, with its tasting menus, while from the street pedestrians glimpse a kitchen in the throes of service thanks to a large square window that could be a nod to the Chinese barbecue restaurant. Not one to take the easy path, Grattard changes her menu daily and doesn't write any recipes down, preferring to cook instinctively all the while raising a young family with Wah Chan.
13. ALBERT ADRIÀ, SEASON 5, EPISODE 4
You know Ferran, the other brother, the one that put El Bulli on the map and unleashed a generation of imitators wielding foams and powders. But did you know that it was Albert Adrià in the engine room, experimenting with chemistry, texture, moulds and your taste buds? As the younger Adrià tells it, he was simply getting on with it while his more extroverted brother enjoyed the limelight. "Shut up and work" is his personal motto, but is he making up for lost time now? There's an uncomfortable final scene where he's asked if he's afraid of being forgotten. With an anger that's just below the surface, he recalls countless occasions where he's referred to as simply the brother before saying, "I'm working on being remembered". Imagine Christmas at the Adrià household.
12. VLADIMIR MUKHIN, SEASON 3, EPISODE 2
If blood and guts aren't your thing, you may need to skip through certain parts of this episode. Vladimir Mukhin isn't afraid of some intense butchery. Moose lips? Sure thing. Cow heads? You got it. The young Russian chef made his name uncovering Russia's pre-Soviet culinary traditions and serving them in a dazzling glass-domed restaurant, White Rabbit, which sits 16 floors above Moscow. Despite growing up with a chef father and cooking in European-influenced Moscow kitchens, Mukhin's desire to move away from classical haute cuisine brought him into conflict with not only his family but the dining public. That is until Russia's sanctions on EU agriculture in 2014 transformed the country's menus overnight and put Russian producers in the spotlight. A fascinating look at how food and politics overlap.
11. TIM RAUE, SEASON 3, EPISODE 5
Tim Raue in the kitchen and Tim Raue out of the kitchen are two different beasts. Chef Raue stalks the work stations of his chefs, dropping F-bombs and cutting people down to size with a few choice words. (Have they all been told to get the same haircut as him?) Raue says that when he started out as a chef, he would arrive before everyone else, try and work faster than everyone else and, as a result, made enemies quickly. But as we learn, he was driven by a desire to outrun his past as a street criminal and the black mark against his name because of where he grew up in Berlin. For me this was a reminder of how potent class distinctions can be. My favourite moment? As two chefs practise the plating of a dish, one says, "I don't think we've ever arranged food differently. Except for the dots. These might get bigger or smaller, that's all." Such is life in the kitchen of Tim Raue.
10. JORDI ROCA, SEASON 4, EPISODE 3
I'd never heard Jordi Roca speak before, so I'll confess that at first I thought the El Celler de Can Roca pastry chef's hushed whisper that plays over the episode's opening shots was Netflix trying to out-Chef's Table itself. Turns out his voice never recovered after a case of laryngitis, but I can't shake the image of the show's producers rubbing their hands together with glee at the drama his husky tones add to this episode. All that aside, Roca's story of being the underdog little brother to his superstar chef siblings is endearing. So is the inquisitive yet amused expression that's frequently on his face and the way he walks as though he's being pulled along by his long nose. Roca also gets bonus points for the most down-to-earth story of why he became a chef: he wanted to finish work earlier than the floor staff so he'd have more time to party.
9. BEN SHEWRY, SEASON 1, EPISODE 5
This was the first episode of Chef's Table I ever watched and it was also the only one that featured a restaurant I've visited. For those reasons, it holds a special significance for me, although compared with some of the others here it can feel like it's plodding in some parts. Shewry is a humble guy who speaks slowly and calmly, even when he's discussing his breakthrough dish at Attica – inspired by the experience of very nearly drowning. With that temperament comes a chef (one of the few in the whole series) willing to discuss the effect of his career success on his family, the regrets he has about prioritising his restaurant and why chefs need a life outside the kitchen.
8. IVAN ORKIN, SEASON 3, EPISODE 4
- insert crying emoji here * If you don't know this ramen chef's story, all I'll say is have the tissues at the ready.
7. NANCY SILVERTON, SEASON 3, EPISODE 3
Nancy, I love you but a little piece of me died when you walked through your vegetable garden wearing Marni sandals. A small part of me also started to hate you when I saw your spacious Provençal-style kitchen, although I seriously wonder how many kitchens in Provence require six egg beaters and 20 pots and pans. Could you possibly use all six egg beaters at once, Nancy? Secretly, I'm just hoping to have your life when I'm your age. The only low point of this episode was having to see Mario Batali on screen. Gag.
6. MICHEL TROISGROS, CHEF'S TABLE FRANCE, EPISODE 4
Father and son. Tradition and change. Salmon and sorrel. Timeless themes combine with landmark dishes and Michelin stars in this episode, focusing on the weight of culinary history as it falls on the shoulders of Michel Troisgros. The Troisgros name is synonymous with cuisine nouvelle and known to just about every gourmand of a certain age. But to this young writer, the story of a third-generation family restaurant in a small French town, a restaurant that's famous for a dish of salmon in sorrel sauce that today seems classic rather than revolutionary, was fascinating. In stark contrast to today's era of behemoth restaurant groups and gimmicky dishes made for Instagram, this was a story of how legacies are made and the enduring influence of French tradition. Seeing it play out in a single restaurant (and a single family!) had me hooked.
5. CRISTINA MARTINEZ, SEASON 5, EPISODE 1
If you thought the Ivan Orkin episode was a tear-jerker, wait till you see the story of Cristina Martinez, a Mexican barbacoa chef living undocumented in the United States who has become the voice for 11 million or so like her who, in her words, are hidden and exploited. "This is the system I wanted people to see," she says. This is visceral television. While meat is butchered, oranges are squeezed to a pulp and flames lick wood in the making of barbacoa, Martinez tells a story of a violent marriage, a chance of escape and a cruel system that continues to exclude her (and many others), despite her efforts to participate fully in American life. Martinez hasn't seen her family in eight years. Under the current administration, the chances of that happening soon are slim. How she manages to stay in the US while being the public face of undocumented immigrants was a question, along with many others, that nagged at me as I watched. The producers unfortunately chose to sidestep the bigger issues, missing what I think was an opportunity to educate more people about a complicated topic. Nevertheless, this is essential TV.
4. NIKI NAKAYAMA, SEASON 1, EPISODE 4
If you love to back an underdog, Niki Nakayama is the chef for you. Not only did she break into kaiseki, a male-dominated style of Japanese cooking, along the way she also defied the expectations of a family who didn't expect women to have successful careers. Her tiny LA restaurant N/Naka makes a point of not repeating any dish for a diner, keeping extensive notes on past visits. In my favourite scene, Nakayama agonises over the menu for an upcoming guest as her sous-chef Carole Iida-Nakayama offers advice. "He's a child," Iida-Nakayama snaps eventually. "He's eight years old."
3. JEONG KWAN, SEASON 3, EPISODE 1
Perhaps the most hyped Chef's Table episode, this is a (very polite) rebuttal to much of what today's top chefs claim to stand for. Jeong Kwan, cooking in a cloistered monastery outside Seoul, is the real deal. Despite never training formally as a chef, the Buddhist nun so enchanted Eric Ripert with her food that he brought her to New York City to cook a one-off dinner at Le Bernardin. Watching Kwan prepare a meal is as far as you can get from a fine-dining kitchen. She mostly cooks alone, in silence and takes her time. Nothing is superfluous. Alain Passard may be all about the gesture, but Kwan never wastes a movement. Watching her garden, cook and pray and listening to her voice are incredibly soothing. The whole episode feels like meditation.
2. CHRISTINA TOSI, SEASON 4, EPISODE 1
Momofuku Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi feels as light and fresh as soft-serve after I've binged on 16 episodes of hyper-serious chefs discussing their personal food philosophy. Tosi wanders the aisles of her local bodega in New York City for inspiration for her desserts; that's how her celebrated cereal milk came about. Her food trades heavily in nostalgia, sure, but it's clear that she has a knack for knowing what makes people happy. This is one of the few episodes that examines food consumed at scale, which also strips away some of the pretentiousness that plagues the series. But Tosi herself is the star: her appetite for fun is infectious. Even when she's getting deep on why she doesn't ice the sides of her cakes, she throws in a sardonic, "That's my diatribe on cake".
1. FRANCIS MALLMANN, SEASON 1, EPISODE 3
Also a contender for the coolest chef in the series, Argentinian Francis Mallmann behaves like a badass in just about every facet of his life. I can't say I endorse his approach to parenting and relationships, but Mallmann is an exhilarating case study in living life by your own rules. He builds huge fires in the remote reaches of Patagonia. A man in waders delivers wine to him as sits in a rowboat eating the fish he caught. He has his own island! All that aside, the main reason Mallmann got my winning vote was his style of cooking. It's elemental, it feels real and there isn't a pair of tweezers in sight. You can almost smell the fire and the lamb cooking al asador in the crisp winter air. It's a refreshing counterpoint to the more overwrought moments of Chef's Table.