Chef’s Table: Pizza Netflix
Humanity’s most eaten dish. The immaculate union of simplicity and indulgence. A pinnacle of culinary joy hailing from the navel of modern civilisation.
Deem these things true of the humble pizza – and it means you’re probably a few episodes deep into this new Netflix series.
The latest instalment of David Gelb’s long-running Chef’s Table documentaries invites us to consider the pizza by way of a half dozen of this planet’s most revered pizzaiolo – those men and women for whom salvation lies somewhere between sweating wads mozzarella and finely blistered crusts.
In the craft and innovation of the modest margarita, these tortured tossers of flapping dough have located their inner artist – and therein found not only queues out the door and global praise, but better ways to live too.
You’ll never deign to reach into the frozen foods section again. Or so we are told over six episodes (theories that this relates to the sacred number of slices on a pizza cannot be confirmed).
The stories are compelling, the camera work lavish. Vivaldi swoops about as olive oil catches evening sun. If you like your food porn to have high production values and tug occasionally at the heart strings, then this is where it’s at.
There are superfoods and there is food that is super. Pizza is the latter. It's supremely versatile, as Korean-American Ann Kim says, and is a gateway to many foods and flavours we’d ordinarily be suspicious of. If it’s on a pizza, we tend to trust it.
Even with just the holy trinity of tomato, mozzarella and basil, the composite parts sing loudly on a pizza if you get them just right, says Bronx legend Chris Bianco. Pizza is also tailor-made to be shared with those we love (within reason).
Bianco is an ideal candidate to kick things off with. Like an extra from a Scorsese film, complete with fussing elderly mama and a shock of Nigel Kennedy grey, he learned about mozzarella from a cheesemaker who sang opera while stirring the curds. Perfect.
After moving to Phoenix, he sold mozzarella door-to-door before opening his own pizza joint. Once locals got a handle on his precision-honed dough (thin but with a sturdy crust), patrons began queuing for hours under the hot Arizona sun.
His raspy Italian-American voice stems from “baker’s lung” – the result of many years inhaling flour and oven smoke. Bianco tells of the effect of churning out hundreds of exquisite pizzas every day, and how he had to rebuild himself following burnout.
This theme of suffering for the art is a recurrent narrative motif in this series.
Rome’s Gabriele Bonci, the former celebrity chef who spiralled into addiction and depression, only to rebuild himself as the Eternal City’s pizza Picasso, is a right ham (a prosciutto?) who has mastered the art of smouldering for the camera.
His admirers, however, credit him with transforming Roman pizza from junk food into convenient posh nosh. As Anthony Bourdain and the throngs outside Bonci’s Pizzarium attested, Bonci knows a thing or two about tray-bake luxuriance.
Even in the Far East, by Kyoto’s gorgeously tranquil Philosopher’s Path, pizza is the disc on which inner peace stands or falls.
Crisp, clean and minimalist, Yoshihiro Imai turned to pizza perfection as a way to put a new spin on traditional Japanese dining. As critical and commercial acclaim arrived to his tiny 14-seater restaurant, his initially suspect parents finally gave their son their blessing.
To greater or lesser degrees, these mini soap operas committed to backdrops of slo-mo oven flames and cloud puffs of flour are enough to emboss the glistening, preening dishes with a bit of narrative substance.
The balance is best in the episode about Franco Pepe, whose restaurant in rural Napoli has become the stuff of legend.
Pepe’s obsessive drive caused a falling out with his brothers and the collapse of his marriage. He is straight and candid about the sacrifices to create what some deem the greatest pizza in the world.
But if pizza teaches us anything, it is that succulent glory requires a slightly burnt crust – and when he reunites with his brothers and begins training his son in the ways of the dough, the maestro’s pride is topped with relief.
Great British Bake Off
Easing us into winter is the delightfully dotty baking contest, where high drama can hinge on a collapsing sponge or a handshake from judge Paul Hollywood. Returning for a 13th outing, new episodes and past seasons are available to watch back via the Channel 4 website.
Anthony Bourdain is the subject of this documentary film by Morgan Neville that charts the life and loves of the chef, writer and TV presenter, as well as the demons he would eventually succumb to. A bittersweet portrait of a sorely missed icon of culinary cool.
You don’t know real-time pressure unless you’ve worked in a commercial kitchen. That’s the takeaway from this stressy one-shot drama from Philip Barantini. Stephen Graham is at his vein-bulging best, as a head chef in an upmarket restaurant having a day from hell.