A complex feast

Over the last three years, Vivaldi’s Winter, The Four Seasons (Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 8, RV 297) has become a Pavlovian tune for fans of Netflix’s hit show, Chef’s Table. As a violin soars expressively above a dynamic bass line, heartbeats quicken, breaths abate, eyes widen and appetites awaken. The piece is the theme music for a three-season feast for the senses, where each episode features a prolific chef and their restaurant. Produced by David Gelb, filmmaker of the mouth-watering Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Chef’s Table has made haute-cuisine accessible and inspiring. That no culinary show comes close to matching the stature of one of Netflix’s crown jewels speaks volumes. As communications professionals, we would do well to listen and take two valuable lessons from the show.

Lesson 1: Why you do it

Renowned thought leader Simon Sinek has often said that people don’t buy what you do, or how you do it; they buy why you do it. This belief is at the core of every episode of Chef’s Table. Understanding who a chef is and why they cook is equally, or perhaps even more, important than what they cook.

Consider for example Episode 1, Season 1, which profiles Massimo Bottura, Chef Patron of Osteria Francescana, named world’s best restaurant in 2016. The episode deftly establishes why Massimo cooks — to reinvent Italian cuisine — and what inspires him — music and art. Thus, when the episode unveils a dish such as ‘The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne’, a dish consisting of crispy pasta, the viewer understands the intent with which it was conceived. Similarly, when Bottura presents ‘Tribute to Monk’ — a dish of ash-covered black cod in black katsuobushi broth, imagined as Bottura listened to Thelonious Monk late one night and heard ‘a flash in the dark’ — the viewer’s knowledge of the chef’s interest in music places them in the unusual position of almost sous-chef.

Though the show’s decision to seemingly prioritize chef over food may seem counter-intuitive at first, it is an approach that reflects the producers’ keen understanding of what consumers are eager to watch. As Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, suggests, people seek out brands that behave like human beings; specifically, brands that tell stories that forge emotional connections. Chef’s Table’s camera lingers on the chef for an inordinate amount of time. However, in doing so, it captures an introspective exercise at work.

For example, in Season 2, Episode 3, the talented and soulful Dominique Crenn remarks that her seemingly eponymous restaurant Atelier Crenn is not named after her, but after her father. It was Allain Crenn, the French painter and politician, who encouraged his daughter’s artistic pursuits. The closeness of their relationship manifests itself in Dominique’s dishes. Her dessert, ‘Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare’ is a reflection on a walk through the woods she took with her father. Prioritizing who Dominique is before unveiling her food enables Chef’s Table to highlight the emotions behind the food. This, in turn, engenders empathy and secures investment from the viewer, who is not simply eating a dessert, but observing a relationship.

The lesson here is simple: we need to approach communications projects with a willingness to ask and answer ‘why’. We need to be willing to present messages in a way that is authentic and genuine. This humanizes the message and, thus, deepens its impact on the consumer.

Lesson 2: The wrapping matters

Chef’s Table pays a great deal of attention to what its camera captures — a subtle expression, a dusting of icing sugar, the plating of a dish, the harmonious chaos of a kitchen, the majesty of a landscape. In particular, the show’s treatment of plating and landscapes reflects the producers’ acknowledgement that viewers are willing to engage with sophisticated detail that is presented in an elegant way.

David Gelb, Chef’s Table’s creator, first raised the bar for food shows to then-unsurpassable heights with Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In a clip from the movie, a Japanese food critic and friends sit down to experience a 20-course omakase menu. The critic describes the series of dishes as a concerto, with individual movements paying homage to particular ingredients and flavours. As each course is served, the camera draws near and captures every detail of each piece of sushi — the glistening soy sauce, the thickness of the fish, and the structure of the rice base. Gelb recognizes that viewers’ palates have become more refined and, as such, presents polished images that engage all the viewer’s senses. It is this recognition, manifested in a surprisingly unorthodox commitment to visual quality, that Gelb has brought with him to Chef’s Table — an approach that is at the heart of the show’s success.

Equally breathtaking are each episode’s stunning landscapes that transport the audience to different corners of the globe. In Season 1, viewers soak in Francis Mallmann’s Patagonian landscapes; in Season 2, they lose themselves in the mountains of Ana Ros’ Slovenia; and in Season 3, they find serenity in the verdant hilltop surroundings of Jeong Kwan’s temple. In every Chef’s Table episode, the camera pauses lengthily on these landscapes or deliberately frames dishes in their foreground. By carefully capturing, curating and presenting the chefs’ environments, the impact of the food itself is heightened. That Mallmann’s brook trout, baked in clay, is prepared and served against a Patagonian lake and filmed in dim natural light, speaks to who he is and what his cuisine is all about — mastering natural elements. Similarly, the tranquility of Jeong Kwan’s ‘temple food’ is only fully realized once the viewer has soaked in the stillness of her monastic surroundings. This technique distinguishes the show because it suggests an implicit trust in the audience’s ability to leverage subtle context and, thus, engage with a story on a deeper level.

The producers’ acknowledgement of how sophisticated viewers have become is reflected in the great attention they put into establishing context around each chef’s dish. With all of the ways people are bombarded with visuals, relying on brash presentations of content is unwise and simply exacerbates consumers’ visual fatigue. We need to trust in consumers’ ability to digest complex detail while simultaneously ensuring that our key messages are beautifully wrapped if we want them to be unpacked.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti were published with accompanying poems that elaborate on what it is about the seasons that each concerto was meant to evoke. In the Winter concerto, Vivaldi presents different poetic observations for each of the Allegro non molto, Largo, and Allegro movements; an exposition of the harshness of the winter months in the Allegro non molto and Allegro passages is juxtaposed against a cozy hearth in the Largo movement. That Vivaldi trusted his listeners to marry two different forms of art to engage more deeply with what each concerto seeks to convey makes his music a fitting theme for a show that challenges its audience in a similar fashion. In an increasingly spoon-fed world, pursuing greater meaning and embracing complexity are approaches that are critical to success in communications and beyond.