I’ve been very “meh” about Chef’s Table on Netflix. As someone who is passionate about food and restaurants, I feel like I’m supposed to be all over it. But I haven’t been, and I’ve had a hard time describing why. Sure, I can poke fun like everyone else does at the overuse of slow motion or question why so much importance is placed on the problematic World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But that’s not really why watching has felt a bit like homework. When I asked someone whose opinion about food I respect why they didn’t like it, her simple response was, because it’s boring. And that’s it for me, too. It’s just been too snoozy. So much of what I’d like to know about the featured chefs and their restaurants is never translated adequately or represented at all, and so the episodes become background noise to me while I check Twitter or Instagram on my phone. The tension has been limp, the emotion too shallow, and the story angles often odd or stunted. Maybe a bit too clinical? Phoney warmth? Even, I must admit, in the episode on Enrique Olvera, the chef of Cosme here in NYC and, more famously, Pujol in Mexico City, which is the restaurant I had booked months in advance of my trip and which currently sits at number 25 on The List. I say “even” because as possibly the only restaurant featured on the show I will ever have the chance of visiting, I began watching with as open a mind as possible. (It soon snapped shut.)
The good thing was that watching had no impact on my anticipation for dining at Pujol. My excitement was tempered, though: It’s considered one of the best places to eat in Mexico City, yet I found in my research that the Olvera star no longer seems to shine as bright as before (Chef’s Table, then, might serve as a nice boost); it was my birthday, but Mondays are quiet in the capital city; it’s a highly sought-after reservation, but I knew I would likely be dining almost wholly with other tourists; and while I’ve wanted to go back to Cosme, I wasn’t in love with my experience there last year. What comes to the fore is that it was my birthday, and with the intention of treating myself however I saw fit, relishing being on vacation, and appreciating that I was about to eat a place where many others would like to switch places with me, it would have been hard for me to have a bad time. And if you’ve seen his episode, regardless of everything else, I was very excited to get to that three-year-old mole.
The good time came easy as did the enjoyment of the food. Like at Cosme, the room is dark and dramatic, flipping expectations or merely modernizing the bright/white fine dining model. English was the language of the room, but the hospitality had the local warmth. Despite the unfamiliar guises and creative plating, it was impossible to make a menu choice from the six-course tasting that was not firmly rooted in Mexican flavours. From the familiar to the rare—ant eggs, corn smut, grasshoppers—the ingredients came together in exciting and satisfying ways, and the comforting backbones of corn, braised meats, and chiles were always present.
I was taken with the shrimp tostada, where I was instructed to crumble the crisp tortilla in the dish, mix, and eat the concoction with a spoon. But the new and aged mole presentation did not disappoint as the savoury finale. Eating both, whether together or separately with the soft, fresh blue corn tortillas will never be forgotten, but the special moment was eating them with the tortilla fused with a hoja santa leaf. It was beautiful to look at, but the herbal quality added to the corn was outstanding with the newer, bright mole and the aged, rich one.
A perfect coil of warm churro is much better than traditional birthday cake as one of the happy endings, but a simple piece of mango can steal its thunder.
If I could have a do-over, I would have watched the episode after my visit. Not because I think it ruined any surprise, but because I would have had more context to appreciate what stories were told. It would have added the warmth I wanted more of. Perhaps more pointedly, the spicy heat needed to command my attention.