These are boom times for lovers of beautiful documentaries about tremendously talented, existentially enlightened chefs. The phenomenon gained steam with the worldwide success of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which spun off the Chef’s Table series, and now everyone’s Netflix recommendations are filled with these films: Noma: My Perfect Storm, For Grace, Entre le Bras, Spinning Plates, and on and on. This is prestige food porn, and, as is always the case with porn, a parody was inevitable.
Last night’s episode of Documentary Now!, the IFC series from Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, was that parody, and it’s a more or less perfect encapsulation of everything that’s right, and wrong, with the genre.
Juan Likes Rice & Chicken, the title of the faux doc, follows the chef and owner of a remote restaurant in Colombia — “a 40-minute walk from the nearest road” — who has earned three Michelin stars on the strength of his rice and chicken. The restaurant offers just one set menu: “warm coffee,” a halved banana, rice with butter, and, “most days,” chicken. Juan, of course, is also nearing retirement and wondering if his son Arturo has what it takes to carry on the family legacy.
In 22 minutes, the episode nails every trope of prestige food porn: the ridiculously isolated restaurant, the chef’s unyielding devotion to the craft (Juan, we learn, “hasn’t missed a day of work in 35 years; he’s had three heart attacks, and each time he toughed it out and didn’t go to the hospital until the last customer left”); the reluctant son taking over for his famous father; horrible American foodie tourists; trips to the local produce market; arcane cooking techniques that raise the food to near-mythic levels of deliciousness; so much slow-motion footage; a soundtrack pulled from Classical Music for Dummies; and a cameo by David Chang.
There is also a lot of pontificating. Anyone who’s watched Chef’s Table, or Jiro, or any of the Noma documentaries knows that navel-gazing is as much a part of these films as sea-urchin beauty shots. It’s as if chefs like Dominique Crenn and Alain Passard do nothing else but sit around all day dreaming up new ways to express themselves through beets and salmon. These people are undeniably talented and driven, but it’s as if the featured chefs have never had to examine a P&L, or fix a broken sink. (Granted, chefs on the level of Dominique Crenn probably have people who call the plumber for them — but still, it’s something you’ve got to deal with.) Instead, these documentaries present the same story in different shades: chef as virtuoso.
Critics, food writers, and fellow kitchen professionals sing the subjects’ praises, the chefs stare off into the distance and talk pointedly about the way childhood beach trips inspired a signature langoustine dish (or whatever), and then we see all the beautiful food porn. Lay down some Vivaldi, throw in a few breathtaking landscape shots, and you’ve got a solid hour of entertainment.
That this is so far removed from the reality of running a high-caliber restaurant is obvious, but it’s also an excellent fantasy for chefs to project if they want to charge couples $1,000 to eat dinner. This isn’t food; it’s the work of a genius. Besides, the format works. It even works in a fictional documentary about chicken and rice that isn’t too far off from reality. Juan’s joke is the obsession over such a simple dish. It isn’t much different from poor Daisuke Nakazawa devoting his life to the perfect omelette in Jiro.
All of this introspection is simultaneously the most compelling and most insufferable part of these documentaries. On one hand, it’s like, Come on — it’s an omelette. But without the struggle, all that’s left is the drudgery of kitchen labor, which is probably not the most exciting subject matter for a TV show.
Three decades ago, the only way the world’s best chefs got on television was through something like Great Chefs, the prestige-food-porn forebear that aired basically forever and always featured hypertalented chefs mundanely cooking exquisite food in stark, utilitarian kitchens. That show is not without its charms — Alain Passard’s truffle-and-Parmesan “fondant” for two is still awesome — and Mary Lou Conroy’s narration remains mesmerizingly deadpan. But, like foie gras wrapped in little cabbage envelopes, the format is too antiquated to be taken seriously in these boundary-pushing culinary times. That’s humorous in its own way, but not quite as funny as Juan Likes Rice & Chicken.