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When Food Becomes Political

The Netflix series Chef's table shows why we take cooking seriously

Cooking shows, as a genre, have long fascinated the American public. From the beloved figure of Julia Child cooking French food, to the travel adventures of Anthony Bourdain, the genre is continuously evolving and attracting a growing number of followers vicariously experiencing foreign cuisines and cultures.

Netflix’s documentary series, Chef’s Table, is the one of the more recent additions to the cooking show category. Started in 2015, Chef’s Table looks at food not only as an experience of culture (or cultures), but also as a form of edible art. Right from the opening credits, beautifully edited to the crescendo of Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter, we witness chefs creating, out of raw materials, true works of art, displaying their masterpieces on immaculate white tablecloths that double as canvases. This is fine dining at its best. To be clear: Chef’s Table is not a traditional cooking show in the sense that one does not learn any recipes, cooking techniques, or anything about the food that is being prepared. Instead, what it illustrates is the human experience of the people behind the food – their work, of course, but also their ethos, motivations, and worldviews: how and why they imagine and execute their creations using edible materials.

In the show’s fifth and current season, the line between food-as-art, popular culture, and political expression, is blurred. The opening episode features the work of an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Cristina Martinez. Martinez is the owner and main cook of a little restaurant in Philadelphia, South Philly Barbacoa, known for its house specialty – tacos de barbacoa. She is not a classically trained chef, nor has she ever attended culinary school. The episode narrates, raw and poetic, the journey of this woman walking across the desert, following the dream of a better life, escaping a situation of poverty and domestic abuse, leaving behind her country and her only daughter. The story sounds very familiar, as right now thousands of Central American immigrants are attempting a longer, but similarly hazardous journey.

Because Martinez is not a traditional, Michelin-starred chef, the choice of featuring her profile might seem odd to essentialist cooks. Nevertheless, the episode is worth watching with open eyes for the layers of its discourse. Similar to the way one assembles a taco, there’s the meat of the episode, so to speak – the process and technique of the cooking itself. But this story is marinated in a particularly toxic political environment for migrants. It is seasoned with the experience of being undocumented, which gives it its flavor, and presented with a side of political activism. We see people gathered around a colorful table, as there are no white tablecloths here (a visual nod to the humbleness of the taco). By facilitating a space for people to eat, talk, and share their stories, Cristina and her American husband (chef Miller) have become voices for the undocumented immigrants that work in the restaurant industry in the United States.

The taco gets attention

Mexican food, “authentic” or not, has already been on the radar of foodies in the U.S. In David Chang’s documentary series, Ugly Delicious (also a Netflix production, 2018), the American culinary landscape and identity have likewise been put under scrutiny. Chang investigates, with a critical eye and the sensibility of an ethnographer, how the dishes Americans love and consume have everything to do with approaching food as a ritual, a practice, and as part of a socially constructed identity. Indirectly, the series illustrates that shared culinary experiences and traditions help build a sense of an “imagined community.”

The taco was featured second on Chang’s list of ugly-but-delicious foods that many Americans love. With this in mind, the Korean-American chef set out to taste and investigate different versions of the taco: from south of the border and around the world (there’s a great taqueria in trendy Copenhagen!), to Taco Bell and the more recent high-culture, fine-dining iteration of Mexican cuisine – such as the tacos in the renowned restaurant Noma (which the New York Times refused to review).

While Ugly Delicious shows us the different places the taco has traveled, in Chef’s Table we get a first-hand look at how it literally crosses geopolitical boundaries through the story of Martinez, who walks across the dessert with the help of a “coyote” (someone paid to help guide migrants across the border), starts working as an undocumented immigrant at restaurants, and finally is able to open her own place. Martinez’s tables are no longer a canvas for high art that only the privileged few can afford. Instead, the tables at her restaurant become an unpretentious and kaleidoscopic expression of popular culture, in this case barbacoa – a highly regional dish. Most notably, we see how food becomes the basis for a community to get together, talk, and then act on a political issue: the undocumented workers’ precarious situation in the food industry.

Food is a political choice

Food lovers have long ago argued that culinary choices are ultimately ethical choices. For example, we know that what we eat has an impact on the environment, as Michael Pollan has demonstrated; and there is a growing consensus that we should eat in more sustainable and nourishing ways. But what about the political dimension of food? Food is powerful. Food creates a sense of community and identity. It may seem like a small thing, but food can be imbued with agency.

If we are what we eat, can food become a vehicle by which we start thinking about the Other, on an ethical level? Beyond the elements of our most cherished dishes, we might start to seriously consider that food and ingredients do not cross borders by themselves. Rather, food rituals, preparations, recipes, are all brought by people. It is people’s hands that prep, chop, cook, and serve.

The hard work of Martinez (“I am the owner, I am the chef, and I am also the dishwasher”, she says) has gained recognition from the closed, somewhat elitist, American food scene. Her restaurant was featured in Bon Appetit (the formerly crusty magazine that was rebranded and made cooking cool again) in 2016 as one of the top 10 in America. In Martinez’s view, what she facilitates is a sense of “home”, people around a table, bringing and sharing stories. Through her work, she unveils the complexity of immigrant’s lives in America.

The food industry has long profited from the cheap labor of immigrants, often turning the other way when it comes to the legal status of its workers – from farms and fields to the table. “Chefs don’t want to know people’s stories”, Martinez complains, “immigrants are hidden and exploited.” Her goal now is to make them visible, to build a sense of understanding and communication through food. With her husband, she helped mobilized #right2work, an organization that, through public dinner events, advocates for the right to work and better conditions of undocumented immigrants. This campaign was instrumental in declaring Philadelphia a safe city for workers, regardless of their immigration status.

Watching Chef’s Table, the viewer wonders: what is going to happen to Martinez under the anti-immigration policies of Trump’s administration? This undocumented, “brave person, who speaks up” as the narration states, is “at terrible risk” of getting deported any second, joining the thousands that have been detained. By looking and acknowledging the work of undocumented people in the food industry, one cannot help but recall Trump’s message to Latino voters (remember this tweet?), during the 2016 presidential campaign. His comment was unwelcomed by Latino communities, not only for political reasons, but also for culinary ones: after all, he was seen eating a taco bowl – widely understood to be an unauthentic, industrialized, mass produced version of a taco, and nothing like “the real thing.”

Along with thousands of people, other chefs, famous or not, have already been deported. Notoriously, there’s the story of chef Eduardo Garcia, who has a cameo in Chang’s Netflix episode on the taco. Aside from the threat of deportation, few Mexican chefs have been successful abroad, gaining the recognition of colleagues and the public –Chef’s Table devoted an episode to Enrique Olvera, the chef of Pujol in Mexico City, and also the owner of a restaurant in New York. And when they are, it can often come at a cost. For example, another respected Mexican chef, Pati Jinich, whose profile was recently featured by The New York Times, narrates that, in order to produce a cooking show aimed at American audiences, she was required to look the part of what people imagine to be a Mexican chef: big hoops, lots of makeup, colorful clothes.

In the middle of the current administration’s anti-immigration agenda and mass deportations, there seems to be a contrasting interest in Mexican food. We cannot lose sight of the fact that culinary traditions are produced and reproduced by people. When people eat together, a sense of appreciation, community and understanding begins to happen, or so we can hope. Chef’s Table is, above all, about experiencing different cultures at the table, but it also aims to inform the viewer’s political and ethical tastes. In this regard it delivers, and just in time, some much needed food for thought.

Veronica Alfaro holds a PhD in Sociology from the Sociology Department at The New School for Social Research. Born and raised in Mexico, for the past decade, she has lived in four different countries, and currently teaches at Columbia College in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a sociologist, and an immigrant herself, Veronica is interested in the powerful political spaces that are created around small things.

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Veronica Alfaro Ahumada

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