David Gelb’s Chef’s Table has come to define high-end food TV. Netflix bet hard on the prestige docudrama style of the show early on and it paid off. The first seasons were examinations of some of the biggest names in the game who, for various reasons (including the debatable cred of the World Restaurant Awards), skewed fairly white and European. Even in a magnificent episode about Argentine mastermind chef Francis Mallmann, the show still fell back on tropes of a white, European colonist “discovering” the ancient foodways of Indigenous Argentinians.
Before long, Chef’s Table was called out for its seemingly elitist gaze. Here are the facts: the first two seasons of the show featured three women (Niki Nakayama, Dominique Crenn, and Ana Roš) and three people of color (Niki Nakayama, Enrique Olvera, and Gaggan Anand) among 12 chefs featured. So it’s not like the production was purely white and male. But the message was clear to Gelb: Do better.
So he did.
Season five was a huge course correction for Chef’s Table — with Cristina Martinez (Indigenous American), Musa Dağdeviren (Turkish), Bo Songvisava (Thai), and Albert Adrià (Spanish) drawing focus. Gelb also added more of a cultural throughline, to help explain the origins of dishes. Extra research and new locations meant a slower cadence. The season was four episodes instead of six. But the added layer fit perfectly with our current political moment. Social constructs were examined in the thorough manner of a great documentary. Ideas on race, migration, and, of course, what food preparation and consumption mean to humanity were challenged. By the end of the season, it was clear: everyone’s favorite show about pretty food had evolved.
In season six, we enter the culinary world’s of Sean Brock, Asma Khan, Dario Cecchini, and Mashama Bailey. The core of the show — from that very first episode starring Massimo Bottura or even Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi — remains fully intact. But these days it’s less about the notion of a mad-genius chef with a singular vision and more about community, humanity, and humility. The focus on food is still there, but it’s less myopic.
The joy of season six is that every episode asks for more than great food. It wonders “why here?” “Why now?” “Why is this chef important?” Then Chef’s Table proceeds to answer those questions, without denying us our food porn fix. Savannah Chef Mashama Bailey and London Chef Asma Khan have the most powerful episodes of the new batch. Not so much because they’re women and people of color, or that there were women behind the camera in both cases, but because their episodes reveal real advances in the food scene. These are stories that need to be told and have been untold for too long. That translates to a certain narrative urgency that’s hard to achieve in prestige, un-hosted food TV.