By Tim Ebner on November 1, 2018
Usually, when an anticipated restaurant faces permitting delays, the chef goes into panic mode — quick.
Not for Reverie’s executive chef Johnny Spero, who last fall sneaked away from D.C. while his Georgetown restaurant faced permitting and design delays to do battle in a global cooking competition called “The Final Table.” It’s coming to Netflix on Nov. 20 (see the trailer here).
“Somehow I timed this all perfectly,” Spero said, jokingly referring to the delays, and the fact that the show will air just 45 days after Reverie’s opening.
“Thinking about it now, [the show] seemed like such a long time ago. It was a blur,” he said.
Just like most made-for-television cooking competitions, “The Final Table” is predicated on high-stakes, time-limited food challenges. But what sets this show apart is its global appeal and talent. Contestants come from around the world: Shane Osborn (Arcane: Hong Kong), Aaron Bludorn (Cafe Boulud: New York), Manuel Berganza (Tapas Club: Singapore), Monique Fiso (Hiakai: Porirua, New Zealand) and Charles Michel (a roving “culinary artist”), to name a few.
“I really wanted people competing who weren’t TV chefs,” says Yasmin Shackleton, the show’s co-creator and executive producer, who previously worked on Fox’s “MasterChef.” “These are people who you haven’t seen on TV and who genuinely work in their kitchen week in and week out.”
The international casting is also part of Netflix’s strategy to lure in food-obsessed viewers and appeal to a growing segment of international subscribers. A few other things that set this show apart: There’s no behind-the-scenes drama, no screaming or throwing pans in a fit of rage, and no cars or cash prizes.
“Our show is all about the celebration of food,” Shackleton said. “We don’t really care what the chefs think about each other. It’s basically let the best man or woman win. They’re all competing to show off their best selves and win a seat at the table.”
The seat she’s referring to will be awarded to a winner on the tenth (and final) episode. That person will have earned the right to join a table of nine judges of internationally recognized names: Enrique Olvera (Mexico), Andoni Aduriz (Spain), Clare Smyth (United Kingdom), Helena Rizzo (Brazil), Vineet Bhatia (India), Grant Achatz (U.S.), Carlo Cracco (Italy), Yoshihiro Narisawa (Japan) and Anne-Sophie Pic (France).
But first, there are nine episodes and culinary challenges to overcome, each with a different food challenge tied to a specific country and dish.
The two-dozen chef contestants work in teams of two. Spero cooked alongside teammate, Jessica Lorigo, who is head chef at Topa Sukalderia in San Sebastian, Spain.
“You stick with your teammate almost the whole way through,” Shackleton said. “Then if you take your partner to the finale, it’s head-to-head.”
It’s a surprise twist that reveals itself in the final episode. The last two teams split, and the chefs compete individually in a challenge judged by the nine star chefs, who pick one winner. Instead of a prize, the winning chef gets the prestige of having a seat at the final table.
Lorigo has a D.C. connection. She worked with Spero at R.J. Cooper’s Rogue 24 in Shaw before moving to Spain and eventually luring Spero there to work at Aduriz’s Mugaritz in 2015. For Spero, the decision for a teammate was easy.
“The show asked: If you had your dream partnership, who would it be? The answer was Jess,” Spero said. “She just gets me, and we work on the same wavelength as far as communicating and talking through our ideas.”
That’s a good thing because the food challenges were fast and varied. In the Mexico episode, the challenge — to build the perfect taco — was judged by two celebrity judges: Mexican boxer Julio César Chávez and actress Martha Higareda. In the Italy episode, soccer star Alessandro Del Piero and Italian food journalist Eleonora Cozzella did the judging.
The celebrity judges decide which three teams are up for elimination. Then those teams compete in a “final plate challenge” judged by a country’s food critic and star chef — for Mexico, it was food critic Mariana Camacho and chef Enrique Olvera.
Surprisingly, the Spain episode proved challenging for Spero. “I love Spain, but I’m not a classically trained Spanish chef,” he said. “I think we saw the most pressure put on us there because everyone assumed we were the experts.”
While Spero will not say how far he advances, or whether he lands the coveted seat at the final table, he did reveal one perk to the show — meeting comedian Dax Shepard and “Fargo” star Colin Hanks, who served as celebrity judges for the U.S. episode.
“It was interesting to meet them, and really they’re just people, too,” Spero said. “I treated them like I would any other guest at my restaurant.”