My life has recently been categorized by several major freak outs. I still don’t have a full-time job and I’ve just moved back to Baltimore, which seems like the end of the world to me, but I’m slowly learning to deal with it. However, those first few days of “dealing with it” just involved marathoning Netflix in order to avoid the real world and the fact that I went from going to wine tasting dinners in Philly to fast food nights with my grandmother, mom, and siblings in Baltimore. I happen to think this was the healthy thing to do, but maybe some of you will disagree with me, so I’ve decided to turn it all into something productive and write a review of one series that has recently consumed me.
Between slowly making my way through Star Trek: The Original Series and discovering new foreign films I may be interested in, I stumbled upon the PBS show The Mind of the Chef. Since I’ve been watching a ton of foodie films for the blog, I’ve started getting more suggestions for food movies and TV shows to watch. Most seem like they’re rubbish, including one called The Trip, which was so bad that I couldn’t even make myself finish it to blog about it, but every so often, something really catches my eye. The first season of this chef-focused series certainly did that with its promise of exploring the world of David Chang in an in-depth and intimate way.
This popular owner of Momofuku who is also one of the brains behind Lucky Peach is one that I only know a little about, so I was eager to truly explore his relationship with food and cooking. In this day and age of popular celebrity chefs who attach their names to restaurants they have no intention of cooking in past opening day, it was sort of refreshing to delve into a series that seemed more science than rock-and-roll. Looking through the episode descriptions that include everything from a trip to San Sebastian and all the tapas there to the exploration of a foie gras sandwich, I was pretty gung-ho about this before I even hit ‘Play.’
When I did start it, though, I could immediately tell it was not without out its faults. The editing choices are so odd and scattered that it really seems like each twenty-minute episode was sloppily thrown together the night before from one huge queue of footage. There are chefs featured who aren’t properly introduced until their second or third episode, the craziest graphics I’ve seen since the ’90s, and episodes that only shakily pair with their title.
I imagine someone giving David Chang a lot of money and going “Just do what you want, and then we’ll figure out what to make the show about.” With episodes clocking in at twenty minutes, you really have to know what you’re doing ahead of time and plan it out just a bit. I would have hated the show if it was some cardboard experience, but I certainly think some idea of what you’re getting into is necessary before you start in on a project. What is the point in calling an episode ‘Japan’ when Tokyo is featured in a third of the episodes?
My only other beef with this series was Anthony Bourdain. I’m really unsure as to why Bourdain narrates the series other than the fact that his name is probably intended to bring in a wider audience. Even though Chef Chang is lauded for his work at Momofuku and his other hot spots, his name isn’t quite as household as Bourdain’s is. I don’t mind Bourdain, but I do think if he keeps doing things like this, he could quickly become an annoyance in my life. I respect a lot of his work and I can’t wait to see his episode on Tehran from his CNN show Parts Unknown, but he adds nothing to this series. If Chang had been narrating it, I believe the series as a whole would have felt more cohesive, as if Chang was inviting us to join him on his experiences himself.
Now that I’ve brought up a few of the problems with this series, let me talk about the elements I love, namely the food. If you search for #foodporn on Instagram, know that you’re one of those people that chefs hate because you’re always taking pictures, or just plain love food, this is the show for you. You won’t learn how to cook, but you will learn about the process of making phenomenal food and the effort chefs put behind each dish. For Chang, food is supposed to be fun, innovative, and delicious…which are pretty much my top three desires for anything I try. I’ve never been one to crave ramen, but after seeing the thought that goes into the food at Momofuku, I am certainly willing to give it another go.
There are a number of his chef friends featured in various episodes, too, including Wylie Dufresne and Rene Redzepi. Each of these chefs approach food in a differently and highlight how similar ingredients can be utilized in completely different ways. While growing up in Virginia may have influenced Chang in the form of a lot of Old Bay covered crabs, a chef from Europe would approach crabmeat in a wholly different way. Although this season is Chang’s story, it accurately depicts how no two minds work in the same way.
Chang’s episodes are geared towards his food influences. With episodes entitled “Noodle” and “Smoke,” each one focuses on a certain element of food. Some of the finer details get lost in editing, but there are real gems in each episode. Chang and the other food professionals he meets with know what they’re talking about and are willing to take risks to make something phenomenal. I love the scenes of foraging in Copenhagen, as well as the behind-the-scenes look into how crazy and nerve-wracking live demonstrations can be for chefs. Throughout each episode, there are little tidbits of information one can glean about cooking, such as how no good banana cream pie should be made with yellow bananas and how one of the first steps to making a great meal is to go back to your childhood.
I definitely think that The Mind of a Chef could use a bit of tweaking, particularly in the editorial department, but nothing is so bad that I wouldn’t be tempted to watch Season 2 on Netflix. The time spent focusing on ingredients and tying it back to the individual chef is a new TV formula for me, and besides a few confusing missteps, this is one series I’ve enjoyed so far. The jury may be out until Season 2 on whether or not this show is strong enough to stand on its own against big names like Top Chef and Parts Unknown, but I can confidently say that either way it is a cerebral food geek show perfect for anyone looking for a bit of fresh air.