Chef’s Table is back. The latest season of the now-iconic Netflix series is a departure from the previous iterations. First, it’s much shorter, clocking in at only four 45-minutes episodes. Second, the show has a laser focus on a single genre of the culinary world: BBQ. Though, a few people — who probably like to call themselves “purists” — will argue if all the food depicted in the series four episodes is “barbecue.”
The new episodes feel like a reset of sorts for the series. The shortened format really allows the episodes to have a complete feel, even an overall arc. Episode one highlights Texas Hill Country’s Snow’s BBQ before veering into the very high-end world of chef Lennox Hastie in Sydney. The show then returns for some Carolina whole hog BBQ with one of America’s biggest BBQ stars right now, Rodney Scott. Finally, the series ends on the Yucatan Peninsula with Indigenous chef and icon Rosalia Chay Chuc. She takes us back to the origins of barbecue in a way that’s rarely been seen on American television with an uncompromising Indigenous POV that shuns the colonial lens.
That last episode is why this season is worth the watch. Finally, we’re starting to see and learn about food from the people we stole a lot of our foodways from. It’s both refreshing and amazingly edifying. Yes, there are two classic episodes of mouth-watering modern BBQ experiences in Texas and South Carolina that entice the soul. But what David Gelb (the showrunner) and his international and diverse crew have done is take the time to ask the hard questions about where this food comes from and how it got to where it is today.
The two defining episodes of the new series are about extraordinary women. The season opener is an unexpected tear-jerker that’s about BBQ legend Tootsie Tomanetz, a pitmaster who’s still shoveling coals in the wee hours of the morning at 85-years-old. If you’re even tangentially aware of Texas BBQ, you’ll have heard of Tootsie and Snow’s BBQ. It’s the sort of place that locals go to while the tourists line up Franklin’s (though Snow’s gets plenty of wayfarers these days too).
The beauty of this episode is that it takes the time to let Tomanetz tell her story, her failures, her triumphs in her own way. At the same time, she’s shoveling those hot coals, mixing up beans, poking at chicken and pork, and working hard. This episode feels like Gelb and Co. have taken all the criticism they’ve received from the never-woke-enough world of food critics and said, “We get it. We care about representation in food too.” Then they break your heart with Tomanetz’s story of loss and endless hard work all to make the perfect plate of BBQ for her neighbors and friends. Yes, I cried more than once during this episode. And yes, I feel rather daft saying that a goddamn food show made me cry but here we are (again).
The show truly shines as a beacon for something new and, dare we say, revolutionary during the final episode with Rosalia Chay Chuc. Rosalia is Mayan. She’s the steward of Mayan Yucatan cuisine that reaches back millennia and has been contorted through colonialization by the Spanish primarily, but also the French, English, and Germans over the centuries.
This point is made painfully clear early in the episode when Rosalia recalls that when she was a child her father made her learn to speak Spanish even though she only wanted to speak Yucatecan Mayan. She remembers her father telling her that if she wants to survive in the world, she needs to speak the language of her colonizers, Spanish. Yup, I teared up again. As someone who’s barred by history from learning the language of my father (Twana), this moment hit me like a ton of bricks.
That ethos, reminder even that Mexico is not a monolith but a colonial power that subjugates its Indigenous population to this day is sobering. Then, the episode builds out the massive impact Mayan cuisine has had on the world from corn to chocolate to avocadoes to chili to hominy to tamales, and yes to barbecue too. The word itself is derived from the Arawak word the Taíno people of the Caribbean used for pit roasting meat, a culinary process popular across the whole of the pre-colonial Americas.
We also have to call out the Rodney Scott episode as being something else we’ve rarely seen on Chef’s Table, a Black chef. Scott is the second Black American chef to be featured on the show after last season’s chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey. It’s a beautiful episode that shows the struggle people endure for the simple act of serving folks food.
Finally, Lennox Hastie’s episode felt the most like what the show used to be more than what it’s become. Even Anthony Bourdain makes an appearance, which now feels like a nostalgic peek into a world that no longer exists. Still, Hastie’s episode isn’t without it’s cutting charm. One of the best moments is when Hastie recalls getting to Europe and landing a dream job at a three-starred Michelin restaurant only to be disappointed by the chefs sacrificing the soul of the food and replacing it with overwrought technique. It’s a refreshing take on the ridiculousness of the high-end, overly fussy food that we’ve all spent way too much time thinking was the only thing that mattered.
And that sums up the season overall, Chef’s Table takes the time to ask you “what matters in food now?” It asks you to care about the origins of the food you think you know. It puts the blood, sweat, and tears front-and-center and never blinks from the harshness of life over the fire. It’s a painfully hard endeavor that so many cooks and pitmasters and chefs go through all so we can eat delicious BBQ and forget our own worries for a moment or two.
You can watch all four episodes of “Chef’s Table: BBQ” on Netflix starting September 2nd.