Chef's Table ages like fine wine. Each season delivers increasingly complex stories of food, identity, and how something as basic as eating a meal creates a foundation for community. The critically lauded documentary series delves into the often painful journeys of the world's greatest chefs as they struggle for fame, financial success, and the perfect bite. It's widely considered one of the best entries in the food entertainment genre for treating a subject most people take for granted as a grand cinematic adventure that seems as fantastical as the latest Marvel franchise film.
A lush visual and emotional narrative created by David Gelb (of Hiro Dreams of Sushi fame), Chef's Table is also easily dismissed as elitist and inaccessible to its audience of weekend bingers who probably are shoving a bodega sandwich and an extra-strong Bustelo down their gullets as they hit play. Chef's Table has always been about the dizzying heights of an insular food world that deigns to offer a feast for the eyes, but not the tongue, unless you're already the kind of person who won't bat an eye at dropping a month's rent on one meal. In fact, Ugly Delicious, David Chang's docu-series on food also on Netflix, gently teases Chef's Table for ignoring the fact that the best meals often come from places and people who will never reach the heights of their Chef's Table contemporaries.
But there are a few rare episodes over the seasons of Chef's Table spotlighting restaurants the average Joe can walk right into — Ivan Orkin's Ivan Ramen, Christina Tosi's Milkbar, Nancy Silverton's Osteria Mozza to name a few. In fact these are some of Chef's Table's greatest episodes, simply for the fact that they work against the grain of the show's reputation. Shot with the same care as the finest of fine dining restaurants, Chef's Table is most effective when it's elevating affordable, accessible food to culinary heights of other Michelin star-awarded chefs in its five volumes.
The fifth volume of Chef's Table contains the best of these episodes. There's never been a more moving tale of culinary success than Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa. Martinez, an undocumented immigrant and avid activist, brings a much-needed perspective to the docu-series. Her story begins with fear. Escaping an abusive husband with a daughter to protect, Martinez made a break for America. With only minimal knowledge of English she found her way to Philly and spent a month going door-to-door at local restaurants asking for any open job they had.
"I want to wash dishes," she said to potential employers, a declarative statement given in the same tone other chefs on the show deploy when talking about winning a third Michelin star. When one of them finally said yes, Martinez couldn't have possibly envisioned where her journey would propel her; she met her future husband and business partner Ben Miller at that job only to be fired when they discovered her undocumented status. In the following years, Martinez would sell regional, hard-to-find Mexican recipes from a food cart, a food truck, her one-bedroom apartment she shared with Miller, and finally her own restaurant which became one of Bon Appetit s Best New Restaurants in 2016. Martinez and Miller went on to garner a James Beard Semi-Finalist slot for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, which vaulted their taco shop into the national spotlight.
But Martinez isn't, more so than any other chef in the series, in it for the attention. In fact, while remaining firmly in the frame, she deftly pivots the conversation to others. Like her estranged family, including her adult daughter whom she was able to support through nursing school thanks to the success of South Philly Barbacoa but hasn't been able to physically hug in nearly a decade. The Mexican community in Philly, who built the word-of-mouth buzz about a place that opened and closed with their working hours rather than those of white professionals. The community of undocumented workers in the restaurant industry who deserve the right to work.
It's not the first time Chef's Table has brought tears to my eyes, but it is the only time I've fallen into a Google spiral about the chef and not the restaurant. And Martinez walks the walk as humbly as she talks the talk. Placing herself under the highly probably risk of deportation, she continually steps up to the platforms offered to her — whether it be magazine features, a segment of Ugly Delicious, or an entire episode of Chef's Table — to advocate for those who helped her come up. Through #Right2Work, Martinez, with the help of Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers' Rights, has opened up a forum where chefs, restaurateurs, journalists, policy makers and, most importantly, workers can share a meal and discuss what forward momentum on issues like equal pay looks like for the food industry, a huge segment of which is made up of undocumented workers.
The impact of Martinez and her family's barbacoa recipe is immeasurable even though most in the food world would never put her next to the likes of Albert Adria, Musa Dağdeviren, and Bo Songvisava (the other chefs featured in Volume 5). Through her love of cooking and her yearning for a little piece of home, she built a business that's made her a cornerstone of the Mexican diaspora in Philly and uplifted many undocumented immigrants through her activism. She elevated the entire food scene simply by being herself, and cooking affordable, accessible meals. A bittersweet success story, Martinez is caught between her bright rising star and the realities of being an outsider in America. But as a viewer what you're left with is a painfully realistic blueprint for the American Dream. And if you can't relish that morsel as much as the European tasting menus of lore, then Chef's Table really can't help you.
Chef's Table Season 5 is available to stream Friday, Sept. 28 on Netflix.