By Greg Morabito on November 8, 2018 10:39 AM EST
On a gray Friday in Los Angeles last December, the stage of The Final Table was covered in a sweeping digital mural depicting a storybook illustration of the heavens, complete with clouds, moons, and a constellation of stars. Nine culinary titans — including chefs Grant Achatz, Clare Smyth, and Enrique Olvera — ceremoniously walked across a raised balcony in the center of the stage, paused for impact, and descended down to the kitchen below, where four chefs were ready to cook their hearts out. Once a clock started running, Andrew Knowlton — editor-at-large of Bon Appetit — bounced from station to station, asking the chefs about each dish as they sweated over the stoves, and the others watched from the sidelines. When the time was up, the chefs dropped their utensils.
This tense, but carefully orchestrated pageant was just the warm-up to the defining moment of a season finale: The Avengers-like supergroup of titans, after tasting the four competitors’ dishes, would determine which of the four competing chefs would be joining them at the “Final Table.” It’s a prize that involves no cash payouts but could change the winner’s career forever, especially if the show is a big hit.
The Final Table represents the next stage in Netflix’s quest to conquer every corner of the entertainment kingdom: The media company is now charging full steam ahead at the culinary competition show, one of the most popular — yet stagnant — TV formats. On November 20, audiences will finally get to see Netflix’s attempt at reimagining the genre: the 10-episode series pits 24 acclaimed chefs against each other in a grand challenge overseen by nine of the world’s kitchen masters. If the series, which like most Netflix shows, will drop an entire season all at once, succeeds at its mission to become a global culinary spectacle, The Final Table could make shows like Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Chopped — all on the air for more than a decade — seem irrelevant. In a best-case scenario, it could become one of Netflix’s tentpole series, right up there with Chef’s Table, Stranger Things, and House of Cards.
The Final Table’s premiere will mark the end of Netflix’s impressive, year-long ramp-up of food-themed series. Since January 2018, the Hollywood maverick has deployed an array of shows that flip the script on representation and storytelling in food media. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious lead the charge last winter, along with the massively popular reboot of Queer Eye, the delightful game show Nailed It!, the scorching food corruption documentary series Rotten, and the family-friendly travel show Somebody Feed Phil. The summer brought the lighthearted baking challenge Sugar Rushand the lightheaded marijuana cookery antics of Cooking on High. And fall saw the launch of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a true game-changer in the realm of food TV, and the irresistible oddity The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell. It was a major directional shift from a company that previously produced only two hits in the food-entertainment space: David Gelb’s genre-defining docuseries Chef’s Table, which debuted in 2015, and Michael Pollan’s less popular, but still well-regarded four-part series Cooked, from 2016.
“When Netflix came to us and said, ‘Bring us a cooking show that you’ve never seen before,’ obviously, that’s a really tall order,” said veteran TV producer Yasmin Shackleton, who created The Final Table along with her colleague Robin Ashbrook. Both producers worked on several reality shows, including Gordon Ramsay’s hit series MasterChef. Ashbrook says that he and Shackleton talked about the impact of Chef’s Table and the existing framework of shows like MasterChef, and asked themselves, “How do we make it feel more like a movie?” The answer, to their eyes at least, was to assemble the best possible group of contestants and judges — a process that involved conversations with critics and food writers around the world — and employ production techniques that had never been used on cooking shows before.
“We have these cameras that you normally see on the side of football fields that race up and down, and we literally slung them on the ceiling and used them to shoot beautiful overhead shots, which is kind of like a signature look of the show,” Shackleton said. ”We’re just trying to push everything and create a visual feast.”
“It would be factually correct to say, that in terms of the size and the scale,” Ashbrook said, “it is the biggest culinary show in a studio that has ever been made.”