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A still from Chef's Table: BBQ, streaming on Netflix.
A still from Chef's Table: BBQ, streaming on Netflix.

Chef’s Table BBQ: There’s more to barbeque cooking than meat and fire

Streaming on Netflix, the acclaimed new series focuses on the complex alchemy of cooking with the simplest of ingredients

Barbeque cooking seems like a no-brainer. With only a handful of ingredients involved, it is arguably the most ancient culinary style practiced by humankind, depending primarily on fire. And yet, as the new season of Chef’s Table shows, there’s much more to this form of cooking than the ability to build and sustain a roaring fire.

Streaming on Netflix, Chef’s Table: BBQ is created by David Gelb, who produced the acclaimed original series too. With only four episodes, three of which are set in the Americas, this is a much more compact series, drawing on a format that is familiar to viewers by now. Each episode zooms in on one chef, focusing closely on their evolution and expertise, while also exploring their legacy in the wider context of their lives. Food and cooking, as the viewer is repeatedly reminded, are not merely about taste and eating; they are tied to communities, production practices, histories, and knowledge systems.

The series opens in Texas, in the US, famous for its grilled meat, with 85-year-old Norma "Tootsie" Tomanetz, a local legend, who works as a custodian at a school during the week and becomes the pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ during the weekend. Born during the Great Depression, she is an anomaly in a job that requires heavy lifting and is traditionally done by men. But Tomanetz, always an independent spirit, doesn’t shy away from waking up at 1AM to drive to work, shovelling red-hot coals into the pit, and testing the heat of the ovens with her bare hands, as she is drenched in sweat. The story of her celebrity is tied to her husband and oldest son, especially to their deaths, and is told with heart.

Tomanetz’s compatriot, Rodney Scott from South Carolina, features in another episode. The only child of a black business owner in the town of Hemingway, Scott is the inheritor of an old tradition of cooking whole hogs on slow heat for hours—followed by generations of former slaves working on the plantations. Once a cheap source of protein, grilled pig meat is now considered a delicacy, used as pulled pork in sliders and burgers. Scott’s story, charting the rise and fall of his fortunes and eventual recovery, is a celebration of the resilience not only of country cooking but also of the spirit of an entire community.

Between these somewhat conventional all-American stories of BBQ cooking is an episode set in Sydney, Australia, where chef Lennox Hastie has elevated cooking with fire to sublime heights of fine dining—grilling not only beef, pork and chicken, but also a range of seafood and salads. If pitmasters of yore felt they were the secret to perfect BBQ cuisine, Hastie considers the fire to be in control of the process—he is a humble accessory who merely coaxes the fire do his bidding.

Trained at the restaurant Asador Etxebarri by Victor Arguinzoniz, the famous chef from Spain’s Basque Country who cooks all his food over grill, Hastie brought his immense repository of knowledge and experience to Sydney. Ever the perfectionist, he spends an inordinate amount of time (nearly four years) looking for the perfect location for his restaurant Firedoor. And even when it finally kicks off, there are rumbles of discontent among the locals, who are unused to innovations like grilled cabbage, lettuce, coconut, pastry, caviar—Hastie has grilled anything you can name—alongside the more familiar fare of meat, fish and seafood.

The intensity of Hastie’s mission and his intrepid experiments with the form and content of barbeque cooking makes him certainly the most appealing chef on the show—but the real star is Rosalia, a Mayan woman from Yaxunah, a remote town in Mexico, who still cooks cochinita pibil (suckling pigs marinated with spices and cooked for hours in a heated pit under the earth) in the same way her ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Rosalia is the only character in the series who is not a formally trained chef; cooking in the Mayan style runs in her genes. She doesn’t own a restaurant, though she cooks for strangers visiting her home exactly the way in which her mother and grandmother would do, without any frills, to give them a taste of authentic Mayan cuisine. What she brings to the table is not merely food but history, distilled in flavours and aromas, the ultimate test of endurance for a cuisine.

In spite of the technical finesse with which it is produced, Chef’s Table BBQ could have upped its game by focusing on more examples like Mayan cooking—such as the grilled meats of South Asia and Southeast Asia, which feel do seem like egregious misses. Hopefully, these small steps would be the beginning of bigger adventures into distant cultures and unfamiliar cuisines.

Chef's Table BBQ is streaming on Netflix.

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