I love to cook. There's something about slowing down, turning on some music, maybe pouring a glass of wine, and putting some thoughtfulness into making a meal. If done right, the process allows for a little creativity and skill. And cooking is at it's best when it's inclusive. Call me what you will, but a date with a girl spent at a market shopping for a meal we prepare together is tough to beat — good stuff doesn't have to be complex, but it always seems to include collaboration and quality conversation. Single life in the delightful but sparse Teton Valley, with its adequate but underwhelming grocery, and the all-day grind of being a fly fishing guide has scaled back my cooking over the last few years. It's just been easier to fix something quick. But, all that's changing.
I guess I started wanting more out of a meal; more than merely satisfying hunger. Part of it was to eat healthier. On a recent cross-country drive, I listened to a podcast that argued that food is the most important medicine we ingest. It made me think about what I usually eat and if there were something better. As a result, I've gotten off autopilot at the grocery mindlessly buying the same old things and decided to take more initiative in determining life's details, a move in part to prioritize enjoying small things instead of solely measuring the value of a day by what I checked off a list.
Incidentally, if you're looking for a quality skillet, go with Lodge Cast Iron. Based in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, they're the only domestic producer of cast iron cookware. I grew up eating the world's best fried chicken cooked in a deep-sided cast iron pot and go to school twenty five miles from the Lodge foundry. Season them correctly and they'll perform better than any non-stick pan you'll find and you won't have to worry about teflon or other chemicals leaching into your food, which is nice.
All this brings me to one of the best documentary series I've found in a long while: Netflix's Chef's Table. In fact, Parks and Recreation notwithstanding, it's the best thing I've ever seen on Netflix. It doesn't require being a foodie. If you like thought-provoking stories that are masterfully told and if you find studying the minds of creative thinkers enjoyable, then pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.
Here's the Season 1 trailer:
The series is equally enjoyable viewed one at a time or binged, but you should definitely start at the beginning of Season 1. Though each installment is a stand-alone, fifty-minute feature of a single chef, a thematic thread and truthfully, a degree of enlightenment seems to build from one episode to the next. Serendipitous perhaps, but an essential element of artful storytelling.
The following sentiment from Ep. 1 of Season 2 resonated with me and hints at the soul of the show. Chef Grant Achatz grew up working in his father's diner, where the bossman believed that food was sufficiently good so long as it was served hot and fast. Reflecting on his decision to leave his dad's diner to pursue a career in haute cuisine, Achatz said simply, "why does [food] have to be a certain way? Is this the best way it can exist or is there a better version? There has to be more than western omelettes and hamburgers." Wanting more isn't necessarily a consequential conviction; it's the commitment to seek it that's important, and the extremes to which these chefs imagine, cultivate, and ultimately realize their aspirations is worthy of admiration.
I'm only two episodes deep into Season 2, but being so impressed, I felt the need to stop and write about it before moving ahead any further. Each chef so far has demonstrated respect for the past and its traditions (ancient in some cases) and acknowledged the advancements others have achieved. Most are painfully aware they didn't invent the wheel, but are determined to roll it forward into exciting, new places. Put another way, these chefs don't want to be replicators of what's been done, they want to invent, to astonish, and to create experiences that strike all the senses.
If you're coming to this with any apprehension that this series sets out to aggrandize the arrogance of chefs selling small portions for small fortunes, I humbly suggest not to worry. The series is as philosophical as it is culinary. It explores the pursuit of personal purpose, sustainability, promotion of culture, and tireless desire for improvement. It's these forms of internal and external scrutiny and struggle that I find compelling and inspiring.
In the end, it really doesn't matter if you become a three-star Michelin chef or a master of the microwave; if you leave the cooking to a loved one or eat every meal at a restaurant. For me, it's been a positive experience to think more clearly about how life unfolds and the indispensable things I want it to include. If you do start watching Chef's Table, I'd be interested to hear what episodes you liked and why. In any event, I hope you enjoy.