No food TV series has attracted as much attention as has Chef’s Table, the first series having been screened in 2016. Focusing originally on World 50 Best Restaurant chefs in the first four series, the fifth series, which began broadcast last Friday, focuses on a diverse mix of chefs with a story and passion: Cristina Martinez, a Mexican chef living in Philadelphia, and serving the Mexican speciality Barbacoa; Musa Dagdeviren focusing on preserving Turkish foods in Istanbul; Bo Songvisava preserving Thai food in Bangkok; and Albert Adriá in Barcelona, creating brand new cuisine. Three of the four chefs featured wish to preserve the tradition and heritage of the food they grew up with, whereas Chef Adrian Adria focuses on the future, reinventing food to make it exciting and unique. 

Cristina Martinez, South Philly Barbacoa, Philadelphia, USA

The episode tells the sad tale of a daughter who loved cooking with her father in Capulhuac in Mexico, and who from the age of six learnt how to slaughter lambs and to make a pit fire to prepare Barbacoa, a national Mexican lamb dish, particularly popular to eat with one’s family on weekends. At the age of 17 years Cristina married, and she had to help in the home of her in-laws, making the dish there too. Her husband abused her verbally and physically, and she was desperately unhappy. Her saving grace was the birth of her daughter Karla. Cristina realised that for her daughter’s sake, she had to make money herself, to allow her daughter to study, otherwise she would be married off young too. There was only one way to do this – to put her daughter into boarding school, and to come to the USA to find a job, and send money back home to Karla. She entered the USA illegally, landed in Philadelphia, and found a job after searching for one for a month. She started prepping vegetables initially, having a communication block, not speaking nor understanding English. She worked hard, and learnt by copying what her boss does. Soon she was promoted to Dessert Chef. She worked double shifts to make extra money. 

She meets Ben Miller, and again communication is a problem, not understanding each other’s languages. But love conquers all, and they marry. Marrying an American citizen does not automatically entitle her to citizenship because of her illegal border crossing. Her boss needs to vouch for her and her employment, but he refuses to, and she is fired. Cristina starts preparing Barbacoa in their apartment, and it becomes a home for other Mexican immigrants, and Cristina soon learns what hardship immigrants have to endure, and how unfairly they are treated. A friend moves out of a restaurant space and offers it to them, and so the South Philly Barbacoa restaurant is born in 2016. 

Ben and Cristina travel to Mexico, and experience tacos made from real corn, not the genetically modified corn from the USA. They want to make tacos from real corn, and have corn grown for their restaurant In 2016 Bon Appetit magazine lists South Philly Barbacao as one of the country’s top 10 new restaurants, and the media coverage is vast. She makes the unequal working conditions for immigrants her cause, and wants to offer her restaurant as a home to Mexican immigrants, and she sees each of them as family, missing her own. She cannot wait for the day that Karla will be able to visit her, once she has the legal papers to do so. 

Musa Dagdeviren, Ciya, Istanbul, Turkey

Dagdeviren cooked with his mother, being the youngest child, and was lucky to learn the cooking of  traditional dishes from her. He was taught to use everything and waste nothing. From the age of five years he worked in his uncle’s bakery. Clients would bring meat to the bakery, where it would be cooked and eaten with the bread. The best food was the left-over fat from the meat, spread over the bread, described as more delicious than eating it with the meat.

Musa learnt about democracy, communism, and fascism, and became political, formng a union with some co-workers, fighting for things they believed in. They went on strike for 40 days until they got what they wanted. Musa left his home town Nizip, and moved to Istanbul, shocked at its diversity in food offering from all over Turkey, and size. He got a job at his uncle’s restaurant, and could not wait for the days off of some of the staff, so that he could learn their job. He loved being in the kitchen, and knew that he wanted to be a chef. 

He was enlisted into the military, as a cook. He disagreed with the cooking methods, all ingredients being cooked in the same pot. He suggested to cook the ingredients separately, and it was a huge success, turning complaints about the food into demands for seconds, there not being enough food.

On his return from the army, he opened his own restaurant. At this time he met Zunaib, and a friendship helping him in the restaurant led to love, and marriage. The restaurant was called Ciya, and ‘became the food of our love’, Musa says. In Istanbul locals started complaining about eating food from different regions, so Musa went back to Nizip to learn the traditional ways and dishes again, to retain the culture that went with it. He decided to write a book about these foods, not researched via Google, but by travelling to 40 villages over 18 months, to learn their special dishes, many of which he did not know. He brought the dishes back to Istanbul, and opened a second restaurant next to Ciya. They were told that they are crazy to open such a restaurant. A total of 600 invitations were sent out, but 2500 guests arrived! It was a huge success. Some of the dishes served are lamb kebab, stuffed eggplant, desserts with sheep milk, and greasy dumplings. 

Musa now has an academy at which he teaches young chefs the traditional dishes of Turkey, handing this food culture over to the next generation. 

Bo Songvisava, Bo.Lan, Bangkok, Thailand

The episode commences with a statement that Thai people serve what the customer wants. But Chef Bo makes it clear that this not the case at her restaurant. She and her husband Dylan Jones keep flavours and dishes as traditional Thai. They will not make their dishes less spicy because the customer does not like spice. If one’s mind is not open from the beginning, one should not eat at their restaurant, she says honestly. 

Thai food is not just about curry or Pad Thai. It is the ‘hallmark of humanity’, says a commentator, expanding to describe it as artisanal, irrational, with a great heritage. At Bo.Lan they only serve real Thai food, not creating dishes for tourists. They are not interested in winning awards. They prepare food which is ethical and sustainable.

Chef Bo explains that Thai people no longer know how to cook from scratch, their food roots disappearing. All food is becoming industrialized. Chef Bo is fighting to revive Thai food that is prepared the way that it should be. 

Chef Bo is very direct and honest, and shares that she and Chef Dylan fight a lot. They see the same point from different perspectives. Fighting makes their relationship to food stronger, and gives it passion, making it better. 

was born in Bangkok, and learnt to cook with her father. She was one of a family of five children. There was food on the table all the time, she says, mainly Chinese and Western foods. Her father allowed her to cook what she wanted to. Her mother insisted that she get a degree, so she studied a hospitality course, the closest course to cooking. After her studies she looked for a cooking job, but could not find one until she was appointed by a restaurant offering Mediterranean food. Having learnt to make Western food, Bo decided she needed to learn to make Thai food. At that time Thai food did not go down well in restaurants, only eaten at home, with restaurants serving expensive foreign dishes. 

She was advised to go to London, to work at Australian Chef David Thompson’s Nahm Thai restaurant in the city, the best Thai restaurant in the world. Here they created real Thai food. Chef Bo was slow in doing her work initially, but never asked for help from her colleagues. Here she met Chef Dylan, at first a friend, until they fell in love. Chef Bo was the first Thai person to work in this Thai restaurant! She often cut herself. She caught up in speed, and became part of the team. She was a good judge of taste, and her colleagues would ask her to check their dishes before the final tasting by Chef David. After two years in London, Chef Bo returned to Thailand, feeling that she was missing something. She took Chef Dylan back with her. 

She knew that she should start a restaurant, and her father’s advice was to ‘fuck it up or make a profit’. It was clear which option was the desired one. Business was slow, and initially customers felt that they offered nothing special. Staff became unreliable, and Chef Bo had to tell Chef Dylan that he was not to shout at the staff as he did in the London restaurant. In the end it was she who shouted at them, needing to groom those staff members who had chosen to work with and learn from her. 

Chefs Bo and Dylan wanted to serve foods made with organic ingredients, but struggled to find them at markets in Bangkok initially. Traders at the markets had little knowledge of the origin of their produce. They persevered, traveling through Thailand, to find artisanal and organic farmers, fishermen, and other produce. They sourced palm sugar, giving a better taste to their dishes than normal white sugar. They learnt that ingredients are the secret of the success of Thai food. Chefs Bo and Dylan changed their menu, to emphasize the organic Thai ingredients, creating everything from scratch. Automatically their food tasted better. 

They realized that sourcing sustainable food, reducing their carbon footprint, and only sourcing ingredients from Thailand would have a positive impact on the environment. When Chef Bo was named the Best Female Chef in Asia, she used this accolade as a platform to endorse organic Thai ingredients. She realizes that sourcing and working sustainably influences how she and her family live their lives, as it will benefit the next generation too, becoming a way of life. 

Adrian Adriá, Tickets and Enigma, Barcelona, Spain

Chef Adrian Adriá is very different to the other traditionalist chefs featured in Season 5 of Chef’s Table. One can describe him as a rebel, and a creative genius, in the scope and quality of the creative dishes he and his team have come up with. He is described as leading ‘avant garde’ Cuisine, one with no boundaries, and in which the sky is the limit. There is total freedom, with no rules. In his cuisine 1 + 1 = 3. If it had to add up to 2, nothing different would ever be created.

Chef Adrian says he has a small circle of friends, which he sees once or twice a week. He does not seek publicity. He is not comfortable in the role as leader. He hates social activities. He works directly with his chefs. He likes to do simple things, and leading a normal life. He has always been the hidden brother of Ferran Adriá, but Adrian is said to be the better cook. 

Chef Adrian strikes one as an unusual deep person, one who suffered dyslexia as a child, and who disliked school, asking his parents’ permission to leave it at the age of fifteen. They agreed, but it meant that he had to work. Being eight years younger than his world famous brother Ferran Adriá, founder of El Bulli, he started working for his older brother. Ferran filled the El Bulli kitchen with recipe books, for his brother to read. It became the most beautiful time in his life, he says, with a true brotherhood extending beyond a blood relationship. He became the Pastry Chef at El Bulli, and initially had a dessert menu. So an adventure began for him, his goal being to have fun. To do so, he had to evolve, and had to scrap the dessert menu. 

El Bulli became the world’s Number one World’s 50 Best Restaurant, and held this ranking for many years. Every winter it would close, so that Albert in particular, and Ferran and their teams, could create new dishes for the next season, creating molecular gastronomy, with spherification being the beginning of it. They redefined what food could be. No other restaurant had the influence on world cuisine as did El Bulli, based in Roses on the Costa Brava in Spain. Ferran Adria became the best known chef in the world. The media attention was crazy, Chef Ferran doing three to four media interviews per day. Ferran Adriá made the TIME 10o most influential people list. 

Chef Albert needed quiet to create, and could not deal with the media attention and the pressure which it created on the restaurant. There was a constant pressure to create new dishes. In total they created 1800 dishes, constantly looking for new techniques and concepts. The pressure of the restaurant became a monster, and Chef Adrian needed a break. He left the high-end cuisine, wanting to control his own life. He opened Tickets in Barcelona, but the customers were disappointed, expecting an El Bulli experience. He needed to move away from being seen as ‘the brother of Ferran’, having to recreate himself. He worked fifteen hours a day, to create his own style at Tickets. It received reactions of ‘wow’, and one could feel the vibration and power of its food. Chef Adrian redefined Modernist Cuisine, in Tapas. Some of his best known Tickets dishes include marinated prawns, almond ice cream, Rose, pancake, rabbit brains, corn, quail, and olive-s. Eating at Tickets is like going to see a show, with magic happening on one’s plate.

Chef Adrian’s philosophy regarding his staff is ‘shut up and work’, probably reflecting his own work ethic. He is a ‘conductor’ of six restaurants within a 2 km radius in Barcelona. He looks after his team, not individuals within it. He believes that the restaurant industry focuses too much on individual chefs. 

Chef Adrian was hurt when an influential Spanish documentary about Spanish cuisine devoted a mere 20 seconds to him. He is now working on being remembered. He has earned the right to be acknowledged in his own right! 

Chef’s Table, Season 5. Netflix. 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein

 

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