The Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table is the ultimate in food porn. The most incredible dishes in the world shot in exquisite detail with the genius chefs behind each morsel telling us their tale. In most cases, their story of how they got to where they are today is one of hardship, of working at their passion day and night, often to the detriment of those around them. The latest in the series, Chef’s Table: France, looks at a narrower field of fine dining by focussing on four French chefs. Their experiences vary, but whether from determination, privilege, curiosity or defying expectations, each chef has something to prove.
Episode 1 Alain Passard – L’Arpège, Paris
“My gardens saved my life.”
When Alain Passard was 14, he knew he wanted to be a chef. Coming from a family of artists, he learned from a young age the value of using his hands. As a teenager, he took up an opportunity to work with one of France’s best chefs. Through that grueling internship, a “school of rigor”, Passard learned the precise gestures of kitchen technique.
Passard then worked at L’Archestrate under the tutelage of Alain Senderens. Here he discovered the wonders of unusual pairings and flavors, of bringing unexpected ingredients together and creating harmony on the plate.
After working in a few other restaurants around Paris, Passard heard of Senderens selling L’Archestrate, so he bought the restaurant, renaming it L’Arpege.
His restaurant earned its first two Michelin stars quickly, and then its third in 1996, but this didn’t stop Passard from continuing to pursue greatness. This is what sets the greats apart from those who are merely good. There was no fourth star for him to attain, and yet this determination and passion drove him to continue to innovate.
After a few years sitting on his three stars, Passard started to burn out. He wasn’t finding the inspiration he once was from cooking meat. So, in 1998, he made a controversial decision to stop making meat dishes and only cook with vegetables. He would use many of the same techniques in cooking the vegetables as with the meat, but this shift opened up his entire creative world.
The scandal in France was brutal. Critics eviscerated Passard and predicted his imminent demise. He would lose everything, they proclaimed, he would lose all his stars and soon be out of business. When the next Michelin Guide came out, he held on to those three stars and has done so ever since.
His garden is now his savior. His gardener is his muse, his life partner. What comes from the earth is all he has to work with, so he has a deep respect for his produce. Passard has been saved.
What greater gift is there in life than finding your passion? This is part of the appeal of the Chef’s Table series. These are people who dedicate their lives to create a fleeting moment of pleasure in another person’s life. These aren’t people who think that they’re doing anything grander than that, and this is what makes them the celebrated artists of our time.
TL;DR: Extremely driven kid learns to be a chef, gets bored with cooking meat and the French think he’s insane until he proves them wrong and they love him again.
Episode 2: Alexandre Couillon – La Marine, Noirmoutier
Warning: this episode shows the chef killing live fish, squid, and lobster. For those a bit more squeamish, you might want to skip this one.
In case you’re not fluent in French, ‘Couillon’ is not a surname you want to be burdened with. Google translates it to mean ‘turd’, but French speakers will tell you that the name is worse than that. So, the unfortunately named Alexandre Couillon had a rough time of it at school. Kids picked on him, and teachers had very low estimations of his abilities.
His family owned the restaurant, La Marine, and while Alexandre had aspirations of making it in the culinary world, his dreams spanned further than their small seaside tourist town of Noirmoutier. As Alexandre and his wife were making plans to leave town, his parents decided that they were going to finish up with the restaurant, and they were passing it down to their son. Sitting at a crossroads moment, the couple were torn. The whole world was out there waiting for them, but this familial obligation was weighing them in this culinary dead-zone.
They gave themselves seven years. If after that time they couldn’t make it work then they would close the restaurant and leave town.
The early years were tough. In the off-season, the entire town would completely shut down, and no one visited. With little money, a child to look after, and next to no customers, Alexandre Couillon started getting creative. Alexandre found inspiration in creating food reflecting the sea and the environment of the small French island. His Erika Oyster dish is just one example. His inspiration for the exquisite dish came from a storm named Erika. The storm caused a tanker to spill oil into the sea, dramatically affecting the seafood of the area. Its plating of an oyster drenched in a black squid ink broth at the center of a white plate is like social commentary from the perspective of a chef, and it’s utterly breathtaking. This oil spill quite clearly inspired many other items on his menu, his use of squid ink liberal, yet beautiful.
La Marine started getting some attention and things snowballed from there. He eventually earned a Michelin star – much to his surprise – followed not long after by a second.
From a kid who people had such low expectations of, Alexandre Couillon not only made a name for himself, he put his small tourist island on the culinary map.
TL;DR: Kid with crappy name is inspired by environmental disasters, turns his crappy small seaside culinary dead-zone tourist town into a dining destination for snobby French people.
Episode 3: Adeline Grattard, Yam’Tcha – Paris
When Adeline Grattard graduated culinary school, she worked at one of France’s top Japanese-inspired restaurants. Asian food had already been a fascination for her, but this experience proved that she needed to explore the avenue further. So, Grattard went out to discover the world and found herself in Hong Kong. There, she worked in a kitchen but struggled with the language barrier. At the brink of giving up, her Hong Kong-born husband joined her, providing translation and opening her up to a whole new world of cuisine.
After two years, the couple returned to France and following the birth of their first child, they opened Yam’Tcha. The restaurant is a perfect culmination of her French culinary background with her love of Chinese flavors.
The struggle for success is less apparent in her journey, sadly making this one of the less dramatic episodes of Chef’s Table. While French-Chinese cuisine is unusual, her story hasn’t yet developed. She’s young, and her career hasn’t had the ups and downs others have endured.
That’s not to say her food doesn’t look incredible. Her spontaneous recipe-free approach to high-end French-Chinese cuisine combined with the tea pairings her husband prepares are truly unique. And that combination of a bao bun with stilton and cherry is genius – this is the kind of vision that could really change the face of French cuisine. However, for TV, there’s little in her story for us to latch on to, not even much in the way of a clash of cultures.
TL;DR: Lady graduates culinary school, goes to Hong Kong, she hates it then loves it. Returns to France to make French Hong Kong-inspired food.
Episode 4: Michel Troisgros, La Maison Troisgros – Paris
“Dead leaves must be picked with a shovel. Memories and regrets, too.”
Michel Troisgros grew up in the shadow of his father and uncle. “The Two Brothers” were France’s most celebrated chefs, and their restaurant, La Maison Troisgros, holds the record for having the longest run of keeping their three Michelin stars. His father’s innovative (for the time) Salmon and Sorrel dish solidified the family’s name in France’s culinary history books.
Michel had dreams to travel and explore flavors and new food experiences around the world. He even had his Australian visa all set to go. Then suddenly, his uncle passed away. As the family grieved, the French papers wondered whether Troisgros could survive with just one brother running the place. So, Michel put his plans on hold and joined his father in running the restaurant.
Michel’s father came from a traditional background. Customers came for the Salmon and Sorrel and other staples that made the restaurant its name. The young and curious Michel, on the other hand, had a more adventurous spirit and wanted to explore new things. Unsurprisingly, the two clashed. Although the episode doesn’t go into it, it’s clear there was a lot of friction between the father and son that has possibly not gone away since.
Eventually – and it’s hard not to think reluctantly as well – his father retires, leaving Michel in charge. Michel doesn’t seem overly disappointed, but he also doesn’t seem particularly happy about it either. Soon, Michel gets bored with this Salmon and Sorrel dish. He wants to make his own name with his own dishes, so he does the unthinkable and takes it off the menu. The French press go crazy, predicting the restaurant’s imminent failure – this is starting to sound like a theme in this season of Chef’s Table. Michel finds inspiration in Japanese cuisine and techniques as well as art, and he incorporates these elements into his food. The result is still recognizably Haute French cuisine, but this Asian twist gives it new life and the French media soon love him again.
We also meet César, Michel’s son. Growing up, César never wanted to be a chef. He tried sound engineering, but it wasn’t the right fit for him, so he returned to his father’s restaurant.
It’s tough reading the Troisgros family. There’s little talk of love or passion for cooking nor the drive and determination of Passard in the first episode. César never looks particularly happy, more like he’s leaning into his expectations. Like the French wine producers in the Netflix documentary Somm: Into the Bottle, the families pass their vineyards down to their sons generation after generation. Each new inheritor tries to love their inherited gift and understand the heritage and legacy they must uphold, but there’s always a deep longing in their eyes. It’s as though they’re asking “what else could I have been?” This look of resignation is all over this second and third generation of Troisgros men.
There’s no feeling sorry for the Troisgros family, though. Their elegant food keeps La Maison Troisgros one of France’s finest dining spots, and their empire continues to grow.
TL;DR: Rich son inherits kitchen, balks tradition, French hate it then love it. Son learns his lesson, passes the baton on down to his son.
Takeaways (no pun intended)
Overall, Chef’s Table: France doesn’t quite have the same dramatic tales that the previous two seasons had. The more established French cuisine culture, while ripe for a thorough shake-up, doesn’t open itself up for the same kinds of stories of hardship and pushing through against all odds. The journey of these chefs from diverse places is interesting, and the food, as always, defying belief. While Chef’s Table: France has no chef battling tongue cancer, the quieter stories of finding inspiration and creativity and the seemingly very fickle French media who will turn on you in a second and just as quickly re-embrace you, are worth exploring.