Nationalism in the kitchen: A reading of Chef’s Table

in Ark Review/Essays by

The problematic trio of food, nationalism and Netflix. 

Like everyone else, I need to shut down my brain once in awhile and watch something mindless. A few weeks ago, I came across Chef’s Table, an ambitious and dramatic Netflix original series exploring the practice and stories of the some of the world’s best chef. It’s a whirlwind of colours and movement and panoramas across cities, forests, tables, restaurants, kitchens. Meat is fried, plants are harvested, fish is caught, and plates are served, all to the score of classical music as intense as the editing. But it’s also a look at a completely different and unexamined side of the number one culinary trend: Nationalism.

Food is, in many ways, inherently national. Plants are literally “of the earth”, an earth criss-crossed with political boundaries that shape our ideas of cultural identity. It is no coincidence that the metaphor of “roots” is used to describe a person’s cultural belonging. Though plants have, from time immemorial, spread across these boundaries, both through natural selection and human transportation, their origins in the soil bind them closely to our ideas of place, home and identity.

Nowhere are these connections more apparent than in the aspirations of the many star chefs on Chef’s Table. Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken serves only food from the darkest corner of Sweden; Enrique Olvera refines Mexican dishes to give them the status of gourmet; Gaggan Andan desperately works to oust the colonial concept of curry from Indian food; Vladimir Mukhin dives into archives to recover Russian cuisine, and Virgilio Martinez literally recreates ecosystems of Peru on his plates. Most of the chef’s in Chef’s Table seem to have one thing in common; the pursuit of an ultimate national food recognized at a global culinary level.

When the nation becomes the ultimate container of authenticity, another issue arises: The power structures of current global society. Not surprisingly, Chef’s Table reveals that the pyramid of prestige in food follows the geopolitical hierarchies formed by colonial history. At the top, European cuisine with French food at the pinnacle of elegance, class and refinement. This is underscored by the show’s new spin-off focused solely on French restaurants, and the fact that a majority of the chefs on the original show were trained in France. At the bottom, the colonial foods, such as Indian and Mexican, which are sold around the world as fast street food. The chefs in this region, such as Gaggan Andan and Enrique Olvera, have a whole history of cultural hierarchies to work against.

Of course, Chef’s Table doesn’t address this issue explicitly. Instead, it individualises the struggle through a mode of story-telling typical of American commercial media, in which the chef is placed in the role of the hero who has had to fight against the prejudice of society in order to finally, inevitably, arrive at the top. But this storyline, which is the narrative of all episodes – even the one about Jeong Kwan, the buddhist monk – not only hides the very real prejudice inherent in our cultural understandings, but posits a “authentic”, “return to the roots” cooking as the ultimate achievement. This “return” or “authenticity” stands unquestioned, and the chef’s role as an instrument of nationalism goes unexamined.

The “return to the roots” food culture is not only brought on by a paradoxical globalization in which the very historical circumstances that created cultural hierarchies, namely European imperial expansion, also created the pathways to the crossing and intermingling of cultures, making it possible for a chef in India to yearn for the recognition of the French Michelin star. It also seems motivated by an awareness of impending ecological disaster. Eating nationally, defined as locally, intertwines with the pursuit of a food production less burdensome and more “natural” than the one currently ruining our planet. For some chefs, such as Magnus Nilsson, this is simply a continuation of their childhood upbringing close to nature. For others, especially the North American chefs such as Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm, it’s a conscious turn away from the over-consuming and over-polluting culture of Western farming.

This combination creates an interesting paradox: In the pursuit of a natural, organic and locally-sourced cuisine, the chefs inherently essentialize and heroize the cultural and political space in which this food comes from – the nation –which then becomes intertwined with an idea of purity, of authenticity, of roots. But what is truly authentic? How far back must we go? According to Vladimir Mukhin, sugar is not authentic to Russian cuisine because it wasn’t introduced until the 18th century. According this logic, the potato should be taken out of all but South American cuisines, where it originally came from. The heroizing narrative presented by Chef’s Table makes it impossible for the show to problematize the political implications of this kind of nationalism.

The chefs on Chef’s Table are of course not guilty of deliberately advancing a divisive nationalistic agenda in service of some ideological conviction. They are merely trying to make a living and practice their art in a world where success is based on the market value of your product. Right now, the value of food is in its authentic naturalness – just think about the success of Noma and New Nordic cuisine. I would not be so intrigued and frightened by this trend were it not for the very real problems that nationalism pose for the liberal democracy in Europe. Across the continent, ideas of cultural origins are once again taking root, excluding all the people unfortunate enough to have arrived here later. These tendencies are challenged in many areas of art, from literature to performance, where the crossing of border and intermingling of ideas is essential to creative survival. But in food, roots are all the rage. The unexamined pursuit of authentic national origin seems to continue unabated, and I wonder, and fear, when other art forms will start to follow suit – and what it will mean, and what will follow.

Aspiring writer and avid reader of fiction. Has an odd penchant for white, American male authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. Likes to discuss the failings of neoliberalism and other systems of oppression. Has yet to find a way to do anything about them. Had her eyes opened by postcolonial and gender theory (which has yet to do anything to her love of aforementioned white American male authors). Prefers Nescafé over real coffee, which everyone in the bookshop finds strange.

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