Television has a terrible habit of handling our food. Cookery shows have long folded homeliness into coquettishness, chefs would rather be masters, even baking seems off. Is there any way we can leave it to cool?
“There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s path,” says Jeong Kwan. Now, that’s more like it. Following a beatific Zen nun sequestered away in the Chunjinam Hermitage in the tree-covered mountains of Korea, the opening episode of Chef’s Table (Netflix), now in its third series, offers itself as a kind of spiritual palate cleanser. You won’t eat at Kwan’s unless you have embarked fully on the road to spiritual enlightenment, which still makes it an easier booking than Noma.
This is a refreshing change of pace for documentary maker David Gelb's show, a departure from the celebrity chefs and Michelin stars that recalls both the tranquil obsession of his early study, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Not that Kwan would abide anything as indulgent as raw fish. A nun who serves “temple food” (mind-calming and all-but-unadorned vegetarian meals) to monks and Korean students of cuisine (and, on occasion, to New York’s restaurant critics at the invitation of celebrity chef, Éric Ripert), if Kwan stands out among Gelb’s sumptuously shot portraits it’s because she offers us a philosophy rather than a menu.
She envisions a world united "through healthy and happy food" and sees "past, present and future" harmoniously entwined in the act of cooking. If that makes a fetish of Kwan's serenity, so be it – she is filmed in quiet contemplation as frequently as in food preparation – and you get the sense that Gelb, Ripert and food critic Jeff Gordinier worship her because she represents a blissful escape from industry, acceleration and ego, to a higher-plane routine: eat, pray, love.
Even with this gentle start, it's easy to binge on Chef's Table; I sat down to watch one episode and stopped, barely satiated, after three. The Oedipal aggression of Russia's crusader Vladimir Mukhin and the quirky passions of Los Angeleno cheese and carb-merchant Nancy Silverton make Kwan seem even more ascetic, with her elegantly unfurling lotus tea and shitake mushrooms bursting open like lilies. But it is heartening to see her erupt, occasionally, with earthly pleasure. "Soy makes me excited just thinking about it," she beams, and her hand leaps to her heart. I'll have what she's having.