We aren’t big into football in my house. But we are big into food shows. And yesterday, the Albrechts, filled with delicious Thanksgiving leftovers (pumpkin pie for breakfast FTW!), sat on the couch in sweatpants and binged our new obsession: Netflix’s The Final Table.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the show, you’re familiar with the concept: teams of world-class chefs compete in a stadium to earn a seat amongst master chefs at… the final table, yada yada. But there are some tweaks to the tired food competition formula that make this show bingeworthy.
First, it is beautifully shot and produced. It’s almost like Iron Chef by way of Chef’s Table. Cameras on wires float above the action like a sporting event. Expertly crafted film vignettes provide backstories of the contestants as well as the prerequisite slow-motion shots of them preparing meals at their restaurants.
Each week, the remaining contestants “visit” a new country and cook a meal using that nation’s ingredients and style. Judges are actually from that country and are a mix of celebrities (often ones starring in other Netflix shows) for the first part of the weekly competition. The bottom three teams from that portion of the show then must cook for a famous chef from that region, who decides who must leave.
What really sets the show apart from other cooking competitions are the contestants, who work in teams of two for most of the season. Some teams are friends who have worked together and it’s this camaraderie that becomes compelling.
In most cooking shows, the chef contestants work alone and typically “aren’t there to make friends,” as the old trope goes. But when they are working with friends, the sum is greater than the parts, and an almost third entity is conjured up out of their collaboration. They form a bond and communicate without speaking, performing a controlled, chaotic dance around fire, whipping up eye-popping dishes in under an hour.
They don’t always work well together or agree (which sinks them), but it’s fun watching teams advance and learn to work and collaborate better as they get to know each other in the kitchen.
I had the pleasure of talking with Eli Holzman, Founder and CEO of Intellectual Property, the production company behind Project Foodie, at our recent Smart Kitchen Summit. We talked about what it takes to make cooking/food shows that stand out in a world packed with so much content. A winning formula right now, anyway, seems to be… kindness.
That may seem odd and not very technically innovative, but watching The Final Table reminded me of what I like so much about The Great British Baking Show (the latest season of which, IMHO, is the best season yet). People work together and speak to each other respectfully. Judges are there to provide constructive feedback, not destroy contestants — and you can see which master chefs are interested in not just critiquing, but teaching.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a Netflix-sized budget and cinematographers who make dishes pop off the screen.
The show isn’t perfect. It could benefit from more diversity in the contestant lineup, the actor/model/former footballer judges don’t provide that much insight, and there is a weird thing where the show reuses the same two audience reaction shots for each episode.
But these issues don’t distract from the overall artistry and addictiveness of the show. If you’re still on the couch, comatose from all that good gravy, fire up The Final Table, and settle in. You’ll be in front of your TV for a while.