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Latin America in the Chef’s Table

An analysis of gender and inequalities in Netflix’s documentary series
L’Amérique Latine dans The Chef's Table : une analyse du genre et des inégalités dans la série documentaire de Netflix.
Ana Rosa D. Santos and Carina J. Mansey

Abstracts

Food media, such as Netflix’s Chef’s Table, presents both an empirical and a normative-aspirational dimension, communicating specific instructions and projecting powerful images of what constitutes a good meal and a culinary authority. This investigation examines the five episodes in the series that portrayed Latin American chefs. The selected episodes present and reproduce the inequalities and gendered distinctions in Latin American professional kitchens. Gender and centre-periphery inequities emerge as intertwined issues, feeding colonialist perspectives and the discourse that a woman's place is in the domestic realm, while men are presented as dreamers, avant-garde, innovators in the fine dining scene.  However, the series also promotes environmental sustainability and brings attention to local ingredients and culinary techniques.

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Introduction

1In contemporary society media has a fundamental role in building and mediating the tastes and values of social groups, by providing the ideational and concrete contexts within which those social values and roles are represented and through which they are reproduced (Holden 2013). It entertains and instructs viewers on how and what to consume in both empirical and normative-aspirational dimensions, in a process of symbolic and material consumption based on the displayed content.

2An increasingly popular feature for media content is that of “food”, which has become the focus of instructional programs, game shows, soap operas, series, films and documentaries. “Food media” could be read as its own genre, characterized by the dominant presence of food, which operates as more than just an element that contributes to the scenery, narrative or theme of an audiovisual production. According to Johnston and Goodman: “[...] food media frame and mediate what foodscapes could and should be, how they could and should operate, and for whom they could and should work. They communicate specific food instructions via recipes, but they also project powerful images of what constitutes a good meal, a worthy home cook and a celebrated chef” (2015 : 209).

3 Thus, food is intrinsically connected to a broader imagery of desired lifestyles, worthy of emulation, that include not only the grammars of food, but also conviviality, household management, health and politics. In other words, food celebrities – chefs in particular – are turned into culinary and cultural authorities, whose idealized lifestyles, ideas and practices are often emulated by the public.  

4In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, digital media fulfils the “educational” and leisure role that television played in the last century. It presents a unique set of formats, of which the most important, for the purposes of this investigation, is the on-demand media distribution service that allows viewers access to films and shows anytime and anywhere (and suppliers to provide them globally). On-demand media constitutes a different model of media production that does not rely on commercial breaks to generate revenue and displays seemingly endless viewing alternatives regarding genres and scheduling. (Unlike TV conventions, such as primetime and the weekly release of episodes, among others.) 

5To date, the largest on-demand streaming platform, with over two hundred million subscribers in over 190 countries, is Netflix. Its first worldwide documentary series, premiered in 2015, focuses on food. Chef’s Table is described as follows: “In this Emmy-nominated series, meet culinary stars around the world who are redefining gourmet food with innovative dishes and tantalizing desserts”. If food celebrities are worthy of emulation then choosing the gastronomy universe as the subject of the platform’s first nonfiction production is not accidental and neither is its format, structured in a variety of food media conventions discussed below. On the other hand, the option for presenting the work environment is uncommon. As Counihan points out, “Across cultures and history, food work can represent drudgery and oppression but also power and creativity” (2013 : 175). Counihan’s point rings true in both domestic and professional settings, such as the ones portrayed on Chef’s Table.

6From the 1950s to the 1980s, television cooking shows followed basically the same model: a single cook providing instruction (Ketchum 2005; for a more detailed description of food media history see Adema 2000). During the 1990s, the interest in food media developed significantly and led chefs, hosts, scientists, food critics, etc. to a celebrity status. A milestone in this process was the debut of a cable channel devoted to gastronomy: the Food Network, launched in November 1993. By producing and acquiring innovative food programs where hosts would entertain while cooking, and by expanding its target audience to include men and people from lower classes, the network represented a paradigm shift.

7After analysing the Food Network shows, Ketchum (2005) concluded that there are four basic categories of food programming: traditional domestic instructional cooking; personality-driven domestic cooking shows; food travel programs; and the avant-garde. As its name describes, the traditional domestic instructional cooking is set in a domestic (yet idealized) scenery, where “[...] Chefs were constantly on the move. There were extreme close-ups of all action including cutting, steaming, boiling, and frying. There was also the exciting transformation of raw ingredients into a meal” (id. : 224). The personality-driven domestic cooking shows are a new cooking program that resemble both talk shows and infomercials, with its live audience, “party atmosphere” and prominent display of food items and processing equipment (id. : 225). Differently, food travel programs seldom present celebrity chefs and cooking instruction, encouraging viewers to visit the featured destinations and shop, eat or, at least, purchase gourmet supplies featured in programs and ads. Lastly, avant-garde shows employ unusual aesthetic conventions through surreal sets, camera angles, bizarre costuming and a somewhat subversive tone. Those shows “[...] did not offer the viewers real opportunities for re-creating the featured experiences and offered more ‘fantastical’ material. However, they still promoted both goods and lifestyles” (ib. : 229).

8By the early 2000s, yet another genre was established, combining the recipe-and-lifestyle format with more “legitimate” documentary approaches, articulated with a political and/or social agenda. According to Bell et al, “The campaigning culinary documentary (CCD) offers a vehicle for television cookery stars to position themselves at the forefront of solving food ‘crises’, and to expand their brand” (2017: 3). The CCD also offers narratives of critique and of potential transformation of the food industry and politics, led by a crusader chef. Being a lifestyle authority is no longer enough: chefs are now positioned as cultural intermediaries (for a deeper insight into the cultural intermediation theme see Piper 2015) and moral entrepreneurs – their role is “both to democratize ideas about lifestyle and to frame particular situations as moral problems that warrant both attention and action” (Bell et al. 2017 : 17). They are expected to find entrepreneurial solutions and to individually make change happen as well.

9 Netflix’s Chef’s Table episodes are a mix of autobiographical stories, interviews with experts (food writers, fellow chefs, etc.), family testimonies and descriptions of dishes or culinary techniques. The number of locations may vary from one episode to another, but they usually include the restaurant kitchen and dining areas, the chef’s home, outside or inside intimate meals and trips to the countryside or the wilderness. A fair amount of the episodes are dedicated to close-up artistic shots of dishes that are served in the chef’s particular restaurant. Its premise is to exhibit the routines and philosophies of these “stars” and their renowned, award-winning, restaurants. Except from the personality-driven domestic cooking shows genre, the series format is an amalgam of borrowed characteristics from the other genres.

10 Society's crescent interest for food entertainment has not gone unnoticed by academia. Consumption (Abbots 2015; Adema 2000; Hansen 2008; Ketchum 2005) and gender (Bower 2004; Cairns et al. 2010; Holden 2013; Leer 2016; Swenson 2013) are the focus of much attention for food media scholarship, with recurrences of research objects: several authors investigate, through different lenses, either Food Network programming as a whole or Jamie Oliver's shows (Hollows 2003; Hollows & Jones 2010; Leer 2016; Piper 2015).  In terms of analysis, it is remarkable that many studies propose classifications of gendered – mostly masculinities – performances (again, Cairns et al. 2010; Holden 2013; Leer 2016; Swenson 2013). Although different, their categories bear some similarities, as will be demonstrated.

11If gender is a prime topic of investigation, it is important to notice that a large part of the work about the production and legitimation of social meanings and communication of gender discourses are centred on performances of masculinities – this maybe a consequence of what Szabo identifies as “growing enthusiasm for cooking among men in the West” due to the “ever-presence of the male chef on food TV and the rising number of books, magazines and blogs about men’s cooking” (2013 : 623). 

12It is also important to reiterate that gender relations are dynamic and must be situated within a broader understanding of institutions and social structures: intersecting systems of inequality that shape how gender is done (Cairns et al. 2010). Hence, food media – through the chefs – presents, performs, interprets, translates, negotiates and/or modifies discourses and ideologies that operate via the vehicles of food and cooking, displaying the “nuances of power in food-related activities that reside at the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and migration” (Julier and Lindenfeld, 2005 : 8).

13 Traditionally, there has been a marked gendered distinction between public and private spheres in relation to food work. Over time and in most cultures, women are associated with daily domestic cooking and family care, while the role of the commercial cook – the chef – is masculine (Cairns et al. 2010; Contreras 2011; DeVault 1991; Charles & Kerr 1988; Holden 2013; and many others). 

14Leer reinforces that, “The male models emphasise extraordinary food and high-level culinary skill, whereas the female model is associated with traditional values of home cooking, family and everyday oriented food that align with a care-for-others role” (2016 : 76). Moreover, according to Swenson, who draws on Pratten (2003) and Cooper (1998), “Within the public sphere, the professional chef has long been male. Even today, restaurant kitchens are notoriously sexist and macho […] Women still hold less than 10% of the top positions in the culinary industry” (2013 :140).  

15At the level of cultural discourses, Szabo (2013) outlines that besides the display of professional skill, men’s cooking is framed as leisure, culinary artistry, creative hobby or stereotype break, as any male domestic work tends to be seen as progressive. On the other hand, the labour of women – even cooking show hosts – is framed as mundane work done for loved ones that might either go unnoticed or be criticized as a sign of conservatism or anti-feminism.

16This is the universe in which the Chef’s Table series is situated.

Latin America on the table

17Chef’s Table is divided into six volumes (seasons), which aired between 2015 and 2019, plus two spin-offs: Chef's Table: France (2016) and Chef's Table: BBQ (2020). The main series has a total of thirty episodes, each one featuring a different professional. The nationalities of the chefs are as follows: ten European chefs, nine North American chefs, five Latin American chefs, five Asian chefs, and one Australian chef. Hence, it becomes immediately clear that the series marginalizes the presence of the Global South and its chefs. 

18Only ten episodes feature female chefs, reproducing the gender gap found in professional kitchens. Even the directing of the episodes follows a similar pattern. Each episode has only one director, but five male North American directors are responsible for twenty-five of the thirty episodes. The remaining five episodes are distributed between two female directors, one North American and one born in India (but raised in different countries). 

19It is therefore apposite to address how gender and centre-periphery relations emerge in the series as two major and intertwined matters of inequality that require further analysis. This article aims to examine how audiovisual programs (re)produce and legitimate social meanings and communicate or defy hegemonic gender and centre-periphery discourses that operate through food and cooking. 

20In order to better comprehend these relations, the series was mapped as a whole and there was a decision to choose a sample of episodes. Given that there has been limited investigation into food media in/of the Global South, there was a decision to focus on episodes that presented a Latin American chef. This corresponded to a total of 250 minutes of footage, portraying Argentine Francis Mallmann, Brazilian Alex Atala, Mexican Enrique Olvera, Peruvian Virgilio Martínez and Mexican Cristina Martínez (for a contextualization of the episodes, see Appendix).

21Firstly, there was a registration of the overall narrative and outline of each episode, alongside its description provided by Netflix. Then, using the closed-caption feature, verbatim transcription of discourse was made. The unit of analysis was speech-based either a line, sentence or paragraph (Rose 2000 : 150). Considering that the episodes are a carefully curated display of the chefs and their intimacies, most likely staged for the series, only the verbal material was taken (without including pauses, hesitations, sound effects, etc.) into consideration for the content analysis. 

22The transcripts were coded into eighteen content categories. The coding frame derived from two sources: the preliminary reading of the data and the combined work of scholars who theorize about food media, gender and inequalities (table 1). These codes identified sections of text referring to the same categories proposed by the authors, with the addition of centre-periphery relations (both inside the country and at a transnational level), as well as illustrative quotations to demonstrate them. It was important to be mindful that there would be codes with no correspondence in the analysis and that more than one code could be assigned to the same unit. Considering, as discussed before, that most of those categories are associated with the construction of masculinities, this coding overlap indicates an integration or reinforcement of dominant discourse(s).

  Table 1 – Analytical categories by author(s)

Cairns et al (2010)

Holden (2013)

Leer (2016)

Swenson (2013)

Pleasure






Knowledge and expertise




Care Work

Freedom

Creativity


Authority

Possession


Power

Cooking as masculine escapism

The TV chef and the revitalisation of the national myth

 

Re-chefisation as a reformulation of the professional chef identity

The TV chef as a moral entrepreneur

Cooking as leisurely entertainment


Cooking as a journey

Cooking as a way to flex professional muscles


Cooking as competitive contest

Built upon theoretical frame

Narratives about careers

23In his research on European cooking shows, Leer (2016) distinguished two main representations of men as “cooking subjects”: the hedonist bon vivant and the professional chef. He contends that the latter is “associated with the professionalism and pride of cooking as a masculine tradition with its great masters” (2016: 76). He notices a tendency he calls re-chefisation, where “signs of professionalism and references to the iconography of the great past masters of the restaurant tradition are blended with more individualised expressions” (id. : 77), for example, high end chefs sporting rock stars’ symbols, such as tattoos and long hair. Within that tendency, gender is enacted through a disapproval of the fluid character of contemporary gender identity and an unquestionable authority that might include hierarchy, muscular physique, brutality and determination. In a diffuse way, this tendency resembles many of the ones that Holden (2013) proposes in his study on how masculinity is constructed and communicated in Japanese television shows.

24Holden contends that Ito’s (1996) categories of authority, power and possession are essential elements that form the masculine hegemonic narratives aired. He goes on to add the categories of creation and freedom to the framework. According to him, authority is displayed in different ways. For example, the elevated position of control and authoritative action that comes with the role of hosts or chefs, which the author calls “executive function”: “Men are executives insofar as they are accorded the lead and the power to direct. All activity flows through them, or else beneath their commanding gaze. In food shows, masculine guidance can take the form of two guises: host and chef” (Holden 2013 : 124).

25Another kind of authority, for Holden, is the one that comes from the recognition of a chef as an “expert”, framed institutionally: “In Japan, where organizational affiliation is one of the significant markers of legitimacy, food shows [...] name the schools in which they have trained, the countries in which they have apprenticed, and under which banner they now wield a spatula” (id. : 126).

26It is interesting that the same values were found by Cairns et al (2010) in their interviews with non-professional cooks. They found that men were more likely to articulate their personal relationship to food with the ideals of knowledge and expertise than women and that, “When performing foodie masculinities through the theme of knowledge and expertise, men often constructed the figure of the culinary artist as the ideal motivating their educational pursuits” (id. : 608).

27Holden (2013) also nominates possession as a masculinity category for analysis. He contends that male chefs are recurrently introduced as successful owners of restaurants that they have founded, managed and maintained. Ownership lends an additional power: “He is not only executive, not only employer, not only expert, he is also landholder, proprietor, and business owner. In Japan, for historical (social class-based) reasons, these are quite powerful statuses to hold” (id. : 128). 

28Swenson (2013) proposes a category that encompasses most of the aforementioned, when she analyses Food Network programs hosted by men, identified as cooking as a way to flex professional muscles: “By adopting the role of chef, instructor or scientist, male hosts construct cooking as a way to flex professional muscles, a theme which rejects situating the male cook as an everyday provider of the personal, domestic care that is a hallmark of family life. [...] By giving cooking an aura of professionalism, hosts reify masculine autonomy from domestic responsibilities and maintain the masculine ideal of ‘breadwinner’ and ‘good provider’” (id. : 142).

29In contrast, the author explains, in their programs female hosts “[...] reify their femininity by coding cooking as a fulfilling act of love and intimacy done for others” (id. : 145). Thus, showing themselves as approachable cooks that prepare meals for family and friends and sharing recipes that are associated with their own family history and values. The use of science, business expertise and professional training separate the work done by masculine figures from the feminine, private, domain of the household. 

30Interestingly, the only episode that presents both sides of the masculinized and feminized spheres of cookery (re)presentation discussed above is the only one that portrays a female chef. Explaining C. Martínez’s signature dish, the journalist, Inger Diaz Barriga, emphasizes her technical abilities: “Lamb barbacoa is a very traditional dish from Central Mexico. It’s very difficult to prepare. It is difficult enough to find good barbacoa in Mexico. So, when Bon Appétit issued its ten best restaurants in America list and there was a barbacoa restaurant in Philadelphia [] It’s a crazy idea. On the other hand, C. Martínez brands or codes her practice as an act of emotion and care, qualities typically associated with femininity: I make my food with love, with strength and with passion. Through food, we can find home” and also “My community is very important. Because in each of them, I see my own family”.

Narratives about family

31Women have traditionally retained such work in contemporary domestic spheres and are the matriarchal protagonists in Latin American home kitchens. As explained by Lovera, “In each of the three cultures [South American native, European and African] that played a role in the history of the South American society, cooking has always been considered women’s work” (2005 : 77). However, this historical and contemporary gendered leadership of the culinary realm is not reflected (or representative) in terms of the chefs featured in the episodes and their narratives. Other differences were observed between the four episodes starring men and the one starring C. Martínez, who owns a restaurant in the United States and is the only chef who does not work in their home country. 

32The importance of the family is emphasized in all episodes, whether in the recurring scenes of the chefs with their families, the chefs’ treatment of their teams as a second family or even, in chef C. Martínez’s case, her own customers as a family community (brought together by a distance from their Mexican homeland). 

33Yet, the way that families are depicted is gendered. When the male chefs’ family members are displayed, most of them female relatives, they are depicted in supportive roles. Wives, sisters and daughters are depicted as caregivers, responsible for taking care of the chef’s children, while he is occupied at the restaurant, or are displayed assisting with restaurant management or food preparation. It is an alarmingly common narrative. Olvera admits: “I try not to spend more than two weeks away from home, with the kids it’s difficult, because they don’t like it. I know. They don’t like it. I don’t like being apart for a long time either. It’s just part of my career and I could complain about it, but… I don’t. I love what I do.”. 

34As for the “second” families, male chefs reinforce a narrative about male camaraderie and fraternity with their restaurant teams. This illustrates what Swenson calls cooking as leisurely entertainment, which is based on the idea that, by showing meal preparation as a special event, separated from the ordinary domestic environment, cooking becomes an acceptable masculine activity and is associated with Adler’s (1981) premise that, within the heteronormative domestic sphere, there is an ideal opposition between “Dad’s” and “Mom’s” cooking: “Dad’s cooking exists in evident contradistinction to Mom’s on every level: his is festal, hers ferial; his is socially and gastronomically experimental, hers mundane; his is dish-specific and temporally-marked, hers diversified and quotidian; his is play, hers is work” (Adler 1981: 51). 

35Although Cairns et al (2010) also propose pleasure as an analytical category of enacting gender, they challenge the dichotomy of masculine pleasure pursued through cooking versus feminine pleasure achieved only by serving food to others (resulting from the historically female restraint of, or pathological relationship to, food’s pleasures). In their research with foodies, the sensuous aspects of food pleasure appeared in interviews with both men and women participants. Szabo (2013) contributes to revise that dichotomy, pointing to a blurring in the boundaries between work and leisure and to the growing number of men responsible for day-to-day household cooking that is mostly care-oriented.

36In the opposite direction, Leer (2016) identifies cooking as masculine escapism as a category of TV shows where “cooking is established as a leisurely practice and a care-for-self project”, “far from an everyday context and far from women” and the absence of women is a central part of the temporary suspension of the quotidian norms.

37This also relates to Holden’s (2013) freedom dimension – an aspect of masculinity construction offered by the shows that are centred on autonomy and an individual-oriented existence. Holden observes that “[...] it is in the aegis of the entertainers and guests who saunter onto the food show stage seemingly unencumbered and free of institutional affiliation or organizational layering” (id. : 130).

38 Mallmann serves to represent this category of leisure and male camaraderie when talking about his team: When we cook outside for big parties I usually have a lot of staff. I like to have a band of gypsy chefs. [...] We are a team that rolls constantly. We are cooking here today, next week we´ll be cooking in the street in New York. There´s an energy that rolls with us. People from the outside get attracted to it. I love the joy of working with all the team. I need to be happy with them. There has to be a festive feeling about the hard work we´re doing”.

39Conversely, the female chef (re)produces the “rhetoric of caring” as she bonds with her community, assuming a “motherly” position of the nurture and maintenance of tradition, values and generational legacy. This corresponds to the category of care work discussed by Cairns et al (2010) – an articulation of dominant discourses of femininity centred on providing family with good food and cultivating their appreciation for it (for an in-depth discussion of this aspect, see DeVault 1994 and Charles Kerr 1988). The depiction of chef C. Martínez reinforces and stabilizes the ideologically inscribed traditional role of women in many cultures – Global North and South alike – as caregivers responsible for maintaining the physical and psychological wellbeing of their family. She is depicted as not only providing material subsistence in the form of food, but also as investing emotional labour to care for her community family and blood family. As discussed before, this would be the opposition of cooking as a way to flex professional muscles, which is the very premise of the show. 

Narratives about territorialities

40Unlike most of their Asian, European and North American counterparts, Latin American chefs and the representations of their homelands are constantly linked to the wilderness and exoticized. This exoticization appears in both the episodes’ descriptions and storylines. The following table presents descriptions of the five selected episodes. In three of them, words such as “wild”, “adventurer” and “unknown” are used, whilst among the non-Latin episodes this kind of description occurs in only five out of twenty-five episodes. 

Table 2 – Episodes descriptions by Netflix

Episode

Description

Francis Mallmann 

(volume 1, episode 3)

From isolated Patagonian islands to French Michelin three-star restaurants, chef Francis Mallmann celebrates his wild, open-fire cooking style 

Alex Atala 

(volume 2, episode 2)

Brazilian chef and adventurer Alex Atala relies on his wild spirit and love for the Amazon to show diners how an open mind pays off in deliciousness 

Enrique Olvera 

(volume 2, episode 4)

Chef Enrique Olvera transforms Mexico’s most savory street foods and traditional ingredients into award-winning dishes at his Mexico City restaurant 

Virgilio Martínez 

(volume 3, episode 6)

Using little-known ingredients from across Peru, chef Virgilio Martínez creates gorgeous, edible ecosystems in his innovative menu at Central 

Cristina Martínez 

(volume 5, episode 1)

Drawing on her family’s rich barbacoa tradition, Cristina Martinez has become a Philadelphia food star – and a voice for undocumented immigrants

Built upon data from Netflix

41As for some of the storylines: Mallmann roasts the asados on an open-fire, along with the ice; Atala treks through the jungle looking for ingredients; V. Martínez, in the Andes Mountains, participates in the traditional ritual of making the Huatia oven with the indigenous Quechua peoples and then cooking potatoes.

42The discourse seeks to do two things: to exoticize, but to also gender. The chefs described in such a way become the exotic bodies of colonized subjects, framed as the antithesis of European Enlightenment ideals. They are coded as exotic, spiritual, wild, emotional and at one with the unknown and dangerous natural world that they inhabit. (By view of such coding they are also feminised.) Yet, their training and, as such, the authority and legitimacy that they earnt in the Global North, allows for the implementation of contradictory codes to be layered on top of the narrative. These men are framed as symbols of masculine strength – they are men of action, survivors, full of stamina, who know the secrets of their environment and how it is to be tamed. These men have the power to tame “Mother” Nature and to produce wealth and sustenance from danger. In other words, they own their dominion, at the same time that they exhibit autonomy and freedom, or what Holden (2013) considers to be a masculinity dimension of possession. According to the author, “In such cases, the chef becomes something more than a food preparer; he becomes host in his own right, commander of a world of his own invention [...]” (id. : 128). 

43An exemplification of this gendered discourse is seen in the V. Martínez episode, when he says: “In Peru, we always have this sense of the unknown. An unknown territory, the unknown Amazonia. There are lots of things just waiting for us to discover. Discovering these new things that people have never seen before, that’s my obsession”. 

44Another constant in the descriptions and storylines is the notion of tradition and the use of traditional ingredients and techniques, often learned from local people and appropriated by the chef. In fact, a large part of the episodes are dedicated to following the chefs on their travels to traditional places. This following of the chefs’ travels is closely related to what Leer (2016) calls the TV chef and the revitalisation of the national myths and Swenson (2013) names cooking as a journey.

45Swenson contends that this category of program showcases chefs travelling and eating particularly unusual or special dishes at sights such as restaurants, bakeries, farms and other establishments to satisfy themselves or indulge in exotic escapades. Her research found that female program hosts would frequently “perform trip-planning or budgeting services for viewers”, while their male counterparts “are portrayed as down-to-earth, ‘everyman’ food critics who want to satisfy their ‘manly appetites’ with ‘real’ American food or as ‘cultural anthropologists’ who can unlock the secrets of exotic locales by eating local cuisine […]” (id. : 148).  

46For Leer, “In recent years, we have seen a new tendency, “[...] in which the travelogue show focusses more on an exploration of the TV chef’s own country, and could be read as part of a broader general trend that focusses on ‘local food’ in reaction to the globalisation of food culture” (2016 : 82).

47A very clear example is given by Mallmann when he presents a dish/technique called curanto

This is called curanto, which is a native name for cooking in a pit in Southern Patagonia. There are some traces of pits like this that anthropologists found that are 12,000 years old. Instead of using cloth, they used a leaf. Which is the size of this pit or even bigger. It is like this [making a gesture of widely opening his arms], which is called nalka. So they covered all the food with nalka and then they would bury everything down and go on daily errands. And there was not a trace of smoke or anything, so it was a hidden treasure of food. Then they would come back at night to open it and have very hot delicious food. The taste you get from this pit in the vegetables is incredible because they are extremely moisty and smoky. I love cooking with pits like this”. 

48Throughout the episodes, the value given to local ingredients and techniques is evident, either if they are highly consumed (such as cassava in Brazil and corn in Mexico) or if the products are unknown to the majority of the country's population (such as the Amazon or Chicatana ants). But rarely do the chefs acknowledge the people who taught them their traditional preparatory techniques – although sometimes they will name those who introduced them to unfamiliar ingredients. However, traditional foods are not normally shown in their usual custom. They are either reframed as gourmet/haute cuisine or they are redesigned using special ingredients and unique preparatory methods available to the chef. 

49Relatedly, tradition should not be overly “traditional”. As Olvera puts it: “We don't want it to be too traditional, I don't want to do the same things my grandma did. [Why not?] ‘Cause she already did it man, right?”. This kind of vision can also be understood as a gendered and power expression, which Holden calls creation or masculinity as production. This expression of masculinity is linked to a dominance over nature. Drawing on Ortner (1974), Holden emphasizes “[...] the notion that the male world is ‘made’; it is a world invented, produced, rendered, and controlled” (Holden 2013: 129).

50The way that tradition is seen and used also depicts the centre-periphery relations. The rural or wilderness periphery areas are rendered as locations that merely supply products, recipes and inspiration, which are subsequently taken from their location of origin – physically and symbolically detached and dislocated from it – to central urban areas of the metropolis where food production and consumption takes place in restaurants. The episodes clearly set out the parameters of these spaces: the periphery is coded as a realm of supply and stimulus and the centre is for creation and consumption. These spaces do not blend, rather, the chef and their staff cross from one to the other. The only exceptions to this are Olvera’s and C. Martínez’s episodes, which are largely set in urban environments. (C. Martínez visits an organic corn farm and takes part in a traditional Aztec blessing in the countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; whereas Olvera visits agave’s fields and production sites in rural Oaxaca, Mexico). Even the visions that audiences are granted of cityscapes are divided into clear distinctions. For example, Olvera discusses the distinction between street food and fine-dining food: 

With street food the flavor is a combination of fat, spice and acid. So there is a lot of ‘flavor’ because there is a lot of fat. It is an easy resource to go to fat. But to me, the real flavor comes from the quality of ingredients. At Pujol [his restaurant], we are fortunate to be able to make tacos to a very high standard of excellence without going to fat. We can get amazing avocados. And we have Luis in Oaxaca and he sells us these beautiful tomatoes. So what you´re eating on top of the taco, if you take the tortilla off, can become a plated dish in any fine dining restaurant”.

51The men's trajectories were all somewhat similar: they started to work or acquired their skills in gastronomy by chance, left their country to acquire training in European cooking techniques, underwent a moment of epiphany and transformation in their gastronomy perspective and made a move back to their origins/traditions. As Holden argues, the training is a claim for masculine legitimacy and authority. Yet, seeking training in the Global North also reinforces a historically ingrained power dynamic concerning the colonizers and the colonized.  It remains the fact that if one wishes to earn legitimacy and authority, they must travel away from their homeland to learn the Global North’s “superior” cooking techniques. The discourse of food author, Peter Kaminsky, present in Mallmann’s episode, reflects this privileging of the Global North. Referring to the chef’s practices, he says: “Even though he uses these very primitive methods of cooking, the techniques are very much influenced by the great French restaurants of Europe” (our emphasis).  

52Albeit C. Martínez is now operating exclusively in the Global North, she is the only chef out of the five who did not possess a position of privilege that allowed her to legitimately train in the Global North. Following the tradition of her family, C. Martínez began to learn the technique of Mexican barbacoa at the age of six. As an adult, she illegally crossed the border into the United States to find employment and provide better living conditions for her daughter. In the United States, she worked in restaurants and married a North American, Ben Miller. After being fired from a restaurant in Philadelphia, due to her immigration status, C. Martínez and Miller started making and selling barbacoa from their home. The barbacoa became popular with Philadelphia’s Mexican community and allowed for them to save enough money to open a restaurant. It is relevant to highlight two core elements portrayed in C. Martínez’s biography. Firstly, C. Martínez, while the episode’s protagonist, is supported by her male North American husband. Secondly, as barbecuing is conventionally a male task in Latin American cultures, it is important to acknowledge that the only female Latin American chef occupies a traditionally male position in the kitchen.

53A recurrent depiction of the dimensions of power and freedom is the framing of the chefs as rule-breakers and fearless individuals. In the name of the best-quality food, C. Martínez and her husband smuggled corn seeds from Mexico to the United States; Mallmann smuggled potatoes from Argentina to Germany; Virgilio tasted things that nobody could verify the edibility of.

54Both Swenson (2013) and Holden (2013) also propose categories related to competition. Swenson points out that, when portraying masculine figures, television programs show cooking as competitive contest, which promotes a version of masculinity tied to hierarchy, success, power, speed and stamina (Swenson 2013: 150).  In consonance, Holden states that food competition shows are a demonstration of power related to a sporting, contentious masculinity, in a discursive frame that conjures constructions of gender in terms of combat and centres on competition to avoid pecuniary loss and public shame (Holden 2013: 123). Those categories relate to Leer’s (2016) idea of re-chefisation. 

55Although there is no explicit competition in the five episodes, there are many demonstrations of (masculinity through) power, speed, strength and stamina, especially in the episodes featuring Atala and V. Martínez. Journalist, Luiz Américo Camargo, comments about Atala: “He’s a hunter and angler, he knows nature, he knows the jungle and his episode presents scenes where, to name a few activities, he clears a path through the woods with a machete, slits a duck’s neck and peels it, dives and fishes with a harpoon and makes a fire. 

56In exhibiting their lives and their restaurants, the chefs also show the vibrant diversity of ingredients and high-quality delicacies that Latin America has to offer. While the series might play into colonial discourses, it does serve an important purpose by introducing audiences to and educating them about Latin American cuisines. It showcases the uniqueness of the food and might help to preserve traditions and redefine visions and practices of (fine) dining across the Latin American nations. One example of this is a tale told by Olvera: 

“A few years ago I went to Oaxaca with Alejandro Ruiz [...]The first stop was in Cuquila. It’s a coffee farm [...] Directly, I went to the kitchen to grab something to eat and I saw Roberto. He was making the sauce and I ate it. And that's one of the most beautiful moments of my life, because I discovered the taste of chicatana ants. It is a very particular taste, and I just fell in love with it. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted in my life. Chicatanas are flying ants and they come out with the first rain that happens in the southern part of Mexico. So, four or five days, you have chicatanas in the year, and that is it. To me, that is the definition of luxury, because you can only have it for four days and it comes from a very specific place”.

57 Atala also proposes a new definition of luxury: “It is not necessary to use expensive ingredients. The luxury is in your hands, in your ability. This is luxury. The human capacity to transform something into emotions”. 

58But, most importantly, all episodes draw attention to social, cultural and environmental concerns. For example, in C. Martínez’s episode, immigration challenges are omnipresent, along with her food practices. As guest interviewee, Inger Barriga, narrates: “[...] Cristina is more than a chef. Cristina is undocumented. Cristina was able to change her circumstances and become an advocate for immigrants. By saying that she is an immigrant so publicly, she is at risk all the time”. It is important to highlight that C. Martínez’s not only exposes the issues faced by immigrants, but other social inequalities, such as child labour and abuse against women. In his episode, Atala states:

“Going to Amazonas it is something that comes deep from my heart. But everybody who loves Amazonas, who enjoys Amazonas, who has been to Amazonas is afraid about the future. Amazonas is under a huge pressure. We need to understand the way that we have been producing food in South America and Brazil is sterilizing entire ecosystems [...] Natural conservation, preservation of Amazonas is not only protecting the river, or the sea, or the forest. It is protecting the men who live inside”. 

59These are examples of the TV chef as a moral entrepreneur, a category of masculine performance proposed by Leer (2016). As discussed before, the chef celebrity engages in larger social issues and becomes a food activist. Leer contends that, “These projects are often played out in a new cooking show subgenre: the campaigning culinary documentary (Hollows 2016). So far, this subgenre is hosted exclusively by male celebrities [...]” (Leer 2016: 79).

60Overall, with the exception of C. Martínez’s, the chefs put themselves in the position of being responsible for modernizing the gastronomic scene of their countries and teaching their people the value of its cuisines by promoting it as fine dining. However, during the episodes there is little to no question that there are many inequalities present in gastronomy (especially working conditions) or – to read into the dominant hegemony present in the narratives – the world in general. 

Conclusion

61This article began with an overview of food’s role in contemporary media, before the introduction of the data source, Netflix’s Chef’s Table, in relation to general academic literature on audiovisual culinary media and the work of scholars who have focused specifically on gender in the realm of food media. Through an evaluation of literature, there was a deduction that food media allows for chefs to become culinary authorities that are capable of presenting, performing, interpreting, translating, negotiating and modifying discourses and ideologies that operate through food and cooking. Yet, gender norms remain prominent in today’s media and women have long been associated with the private sphere of the culinary, while men have held positions in the public sphere. This situated the Chef’s Table before introducing the five episodes of the series that featured Latin American chefs and the methodology.

62In order to examine how the Chef’s Table (re)produces and legitimates social meanings and communicates or defies hegemonic gender and centre-periphery discourses, the series was mapped out and then a sample of episodes that portrayed the only Latin American chefs presented in the series, Francis Mallmann, Alex Atala, Enrique Olvera, Virgilio Martínez and Cristina Martínez, was selected and transcribed. Episode transcripts were then coded into eighteen content categories, based on preliminary findings and relevant scholarly theorizations. Via analysis of the coded units of discourse, three broad and overlapping themes emerged: narratives about career, family and territorialities.

63In the outline of the first of these themes, career, it was identified that men and women are portrayed differently in food media and that the use of science, expertise and training separate the work done by masculine figures from the feminine, private, domain of the household. From the analysis, it was established that only one episode, featuring female chef, C. Martínez, presented both sides of these masculinized and feminized cookery realms.

64Turning to ideas about the family, it was asserted that traditionally women have been the matriarchal protagonists of the Latin American home’s kitchen, but that this gendered culinary leadership was not reflected in the content that was analysed, other than, to an extent, within the episode featuring C. Martínez. Nonetheless, all episodes contained gendered narratives about the family. When the male chefs’ biological family were featured, they were depicted as being in supportive roles. Specifically, women were shown to be responsible for support in terms of childcare, restaurant management or culinary preparation. Regarding the depiction of their teams, Mallmann’s episode served to represent notions of leisure, male camaraderie and fraternity. However, the only featured female chef was framed as “motherly” and “caring”, stabilizing and reinforcing ideologies that traditionally inscribe women as responsible for familial care work and providing emotional sustenance.

65The last of the analysis focused on territorialities. As was affirmed in both the episodes and their descriptions, it was contended that both Latin Americans and their homelands are subjects of gendered exoticization. Men featured in the series were coded as symbols of masculine strength, able to tame and profit from “Mother” nature. It was also discerned that, throughout the episodes, value was given to local ingredients and techniques, albeit tradition was not afforded the same worth due to an emphasis on a masculine novel creation. Nature was framed as a periphery region, which supplied produce, whereas urban spaces were areas for creation and consumption. These spaces were not blended, but seen as distinct. This demarcation of space paralleled the Global North’s and South’s divide in terms of culinary legitimization and distinction. Interestingly, C. Martínez was the only Latin American chef to have not trained in the Global North, albeit she does operate there and occupies a traditionally male position in the kitchen.

66Despite the fact that the series played into both gendered and colonial discourses, reinforcing problematic ideologies, all episodes did help to showcase and educate on Latin American cuisines and social, cultural and environmental concerns, which is a silver lining.

67It is hoped that this article is able to contribute to the limited research that discusses food media in/of the Global South and has highlighted some of the prevalent gender and centre-periphery inequities observable in both metaphorical and geographical regions. Nonetheless, there is a wish to emphasise that more research, bridging disciplines, cultures and boarders, needs to be produced in order to challenge these inequalities and the way that they are portrayed in dominant media discourse. There is also a feeling that the time old, quintessential, binaries associated with masculinity, femininity and food need to be challenged, both in the fields of the culinary and academia.

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Annex

Francis Mallmann/ Restaurant Patagonia Sur (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

(Volume 1, episode 3, 49min)

This episode was directed by Clay Jetter and was aired in 2015 as part of the first season of Chef’s Table. A large proportion of the episode’s footage is shot outdoors, in a remote part of Patagonia, and features the chef and his staff preparing dishes using ingredients ranging from vegetables to whole lambs, which are cooked on open fires or in pits amidst snow covered terrains. His career as a cook is presented as follows: He started his first restaurant when he was nineteen years old and a little later, influenced by French cookbooks and magazines, decided to go to France. Upon arrival, he struggled to find a job, so he wrote letters to all twenty-one three-starred restaurants that were open in France at the time. Eventually he was able to work in some of them and improve his techniques. When back in Argentina, he opened quite a successful fancy French restaurant, which had a largely Argentine patronage. One day, after eating a meal there, the CEO of Cartier asked to talk to him. According to Mallmann, “So we went sort of on the side and he said, you know, ‘Mr. Mallmann, this was a really horrible meal. [...] And I want to say this in a nice way to you because I see a lot of effort in what you do, but this was not French food’. [...] In time I realized that he was right.”. In 1995 he was invited to cook for the International Academy of Gastronomy and was awarded a prize for the meal he served a tribute to the Andes, with all the dishes made with different Andean potatoes. After that, he started to recreate his cooking using his memories and experiences of living in Patagonia – particularly incorporating the use of fire and opened many restaurants, wrote cookbooks, hosted television shows and became a food celebrity.     

Alex Atala/ Restaurant D.O.M. (São Paulo, Brazil)

(Volume 2, episode 2, 51min)

The second season aired in 2016 and, so far, is the only one that has featured episodes showcasing more than one Latin American chef.  These episodes were both directed by Clay Jetter. In Atala’s episode, there is a lot of outdoor imagery, with the chef performing different actions not only cooking. It also gives space to his social project, ATA, showing some of its activities with indigenous peoples. Atala’s story as a cook is tied to his fascination with punk music and lifestyle. In his youth, he decided to move to Europe to see how punk life was there. As he needed a visa, he applied for a “chef school” to get a student visa and ended up falling in love with the profession. After graduating, he settled in Italy, where he worked in a kitchen, and had a son. He realized he did not want to raise his son in Italy, so he returned to Brazil and started to work in fine dining restaurants. Four years later, he was working in a French restaurant and he met French chef, Erick Jacquin. Atala recalls: “Erick called me and said, ‘Alex, sit with me. You are a good chef. You know how to achieve the flavor. But you’re never gonna make French food as good as I do’.”. And so Atala decided that, if he would never make French food as good as a French chef, then he would make Brazilian food better than everyone, and opened his restaurant, D.O.M. It was definitely not a success in the first years, but in 2005 it reached a turning point, and Atala decided to attend a chefs’ conference, “Madrid Fusion”, in Spain. At the conference he exhibited a concept he calls “Amazonic terroir”, through a piece of fresh heart of palm, something barely known outside Brazil. This caught the attention of the very famous Spanish chef, Ferran Adrià, who joined the stage. From that point on, with this kind of “blessing”, Atala became famous worldwide.             

Enrique Olvera/ Restaurant Pujol (Mexico City, Mexico)

(volume 2, episode 4, 47min)

This is the other episode from the second season. It presents mostly urban scenes of different cities in Mexico, but there are also some countryside scenes in agave fields, production sites and corn farms. Olvera’s gastronomy journey began when he started cooking for his partner in the hope of impressing her. He soon realized that he loved to cook and started to prepare meals on the weekends for friends. These meals became so popular that even his friends’ parents began attending. As cooking was not recognized as a career in Mexico at the time, after finishing high school, he went to culinary school in New York, where he graduated with honors. He then returned to Mexico and in May, 6 2000 he opened his restaurant, Pujol. At first, it did not get much attention or custom, but by 2004 it was considered one of the best in Mexico City. Yet, he felt disconnected from his food. He describes a conversation with Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, a well-known chef in Mexico City: “One day, he told me: ‘You’re a really good cook, but you’re not making Mexican food. You’re using Mexican ingredients in a very shy way and you should know your culture better, and you have a responsibility as a Mexican cook to do Mexican food’.”. After that, he realized that he should use Mexican traditions and ingredients in a unique way, cooking from his own references, not outside ones. One of his signature dishes is Mole Madre, a sauce that is permanently evolving at the time that they were shooting the series, it was 895 days old.

Virgilio Martínez/ Restaurant Central (Lima, Peru)

(Volume 3, episode 6, 51min)

This episode, also directed by Clay Jetter, features different and diverse outdoor locations, with shots from the Tambopata Jungle, the Pacific Coast, and many places in the Andes (like Laguna de Pomacanchi, Chahuay and others). In the same year that it aired, it was nominated for the 2017 Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program Emmy Award. Virgilio’s path as a cook started when he was eighteen. He did not want to go to university, instead he wanted to travel around the world, and a friend told him that he could do so by working in kitchens, because, for some tasks, he would not need to speak the (local) language. According to the chef, “At the beginning my goal was to travel. An excuse was working in kitchens. From an excuse, it turned to be my passion.”. He spent six years working abroad in “[…] well-known restaurants doing classic cuisines […]”, until he realized that he had no sense of belonging no idea about Peruvian cuisine. He then asked famous Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio for a job and worked for him for four years in different countries. Yet, he wanted to be more creative and decided to open his own restaurant. A few years later, after a sabbatical period of research in the Andes, where he learnt from the local people to see the world vertically not horizontally, he created his signature menu concept of altitudes/ecosystems. 

Cristina Martínez/ Restaurant South Philly Barbacoa (Philadelphia, United States)

(Volume 5, episode 1, 51min)

After a hiatus on season 4 (dedicated exclusively to pastry), without any chef from Latin America, the first episode of the fifth volume, aired in 2018, presents many differences from the previous ones. It is one of the few in the series that is directed by a woman, Abigail Fuller, and its narrative is more focused on the chef’s subjectivity. This episode is mostly recorded in urban settings, with many indoor scenes – shot either at the chef’s restaurant or at intimate places, such as offices and homes. The episode orbits around two points: the highly specific technical process of the barbacoa and the chef’s struggles in her youth and as an immigrant. Barbacoa tradition has been in C. Martínez’s family for generations, as she states: “I’ve been cooking barbacoa since I was six years old. And still, when I’m making barbacoa, I feel something magical. I rejoice in my heart.”. She married at seventeen and two years later had a daughter, Karla. She suffered physical and verbal abuse in the marriage, and in order to protect her daughter from the same future, she was sent to a boarding school. But to be able to pay for the education, C. Martínez had to go (illegally) to the United States to find work. After a very difficult crossing that included fifteen days in the desert, it took a month until she found a job. In the United States she remarried, but, when seeking support for her green card application and disclosing her immigrant status, she was fired from the restaurant that she worked at. She subsequently started cooking barbacoa and consommé at home for immigrants like her. Then, when a friend moved out his restaurant, she took the space to start her own. Alongside running her restaurant, she became an activist for the immigration cause.

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References

Electronic reference

Ana Rosa D. Santos and Carina J. Mansey, « Latin America in the Chef’s Table », Anthropology of food [Online], S17 | 2022, Online since , connection on 12 August 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/13328 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.13328

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About the authors

Ana Rosa D. Santos

Professor, Centre for Excellence in Tourism, University of Brasília, arsantos@unb.br

Carina J. Mansey

Sociologist, Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Social Sciences, City, University of London, carina.mansey.1@city.ac.uk   

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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