In the very first episode itself, Ed Levine, New-York based writer and founder, Serious Eats, busts a few myths. Having travelled extensively around Italy, and after having eaten some thousands of slices of pizza, he has come to the realisation that the best pizza is made in Phoenix, Arizona—at Chris Bianco's pizzeria, to be specific. This statement might not sit well with puritans, who swear by the Neapolitan or Sicilian pizzas found in Italy, but Levine stands by it. The first episode of Chef's Table: Pizza, the seventh season of this award-winning food docuseries started by David Gelb to look at the unique approaches of international chefs, takes the viewer to Bianco's pizzeria. There, we don't just meet the legendary chef, but are introduced to the ecosystem of farmers, producers and cheese makers, who contribute to the pizza making.
In fact the entire series looks beyond the usual ideas of pizza in people's minds and takes one to eateries from Portland to Kyoto, where chefs have elevated this dish to something of an art form. Italy has been represented, of course, by Franco Pepe and Gabriele Bonci, who is famous for his Roman-style pizza al taglio. However, Bonci too is not a conventional pizza chef. “Using the same spelt that the ancient Romans used for their bread, he tops it with experimental, artisanal produce, coming up with more than 1,500 types of pizza in one year alone,” mentions an article in the Guardian.
The Chef's Table series has always been fascinating for not just focusing on a dish or a single restaurant kitchen, but on the people and places that have added to a chef's culinary philosophy. In the first episode, Bianco takes the viewer to Oatman Farms, which revitalises family farms in a dry desert environment.
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It's interesting to note that Arizona grows wheat that goes to Italy. One gets to know of Bianco's struggles with asthma, and how he turned this detriment into a strength. Unable to play outdoor games, he would stay at home and help his mom with dinner. His story finds parallels with that of Chef Vikas Khanna, who struggled with club foot as a child, and ended up helping his grandmother in the kitchen. The rest, as they say, is history
Bianco's journey is also reflective of the move in Arizona from imported produce towards homegrown ones. It is no longer fashionable to get asparagus from France but to look at the bounty that is available in the desert. Bianco, for instance, taps on the pistachio, rosemary and onions grown in the region for his Rosa pizza. Such is his fame that at one point people would line up at 10 am at his pizzeria, which would open at 5 pm. Bianco has had to shift his role from a hand's-on chef to a mentor in recent years after having been diagnosed with Baker's Lung, caused by air-borne flour and smoke. He is now letting people help with the process, guiding and mentoring them on the way.
Pizza is just a means to get into stories that inspire and motivate—of finding acceptance, of striving against the odds, and more. If there is one episode that you simply must watch, it is the last one about Sarah Minnick, who wanted to be a painter, but veered towards the culinary arts. At Fifty Fifty in Portland, she runs a women-led enterprise, where her sister manages the front of the house, mom manages the accounts, and daughter Sophie is the master pizza box folder. Weeds, flowers and wild edibles find their way into the kitchen, where she experiments with pizzas and ice creams.
I am itching to try her recipe of fig-leaf infused cream. Minnick developed this after noticing a fig tree in her sister's yard, which had “terrible figs” but great leaves. She then layered these in the ovens at low temperature, crushed them up and cooked them with cream. This concoction would thicken up like a yogurt, one part of which would go in the pizza and the other in the ice-cream. The path to success has not been easy. Inspired by the Tartine Bread book, she baked bread everyday for five years, until she perfected her technique. While experimenting with new produce, she works all night getting the flavour profiles correct. She has tried everything, including plantain weeds with roots attached to them, fermented tomatoes, grapes and chicory.
The other episode that stands out is about Yoshihiro Imai from Kyoto. There is a certain zen-like quality about it. At his eatery, Monk, he is inspired by the Japanese word WA, which is about ‘harmony in nature’. One doesn't just get to know Imai's food philosophy but also his worldview. He draws on the Japanese tea ceremony, kaiseki, which starts with a little bit of rice. He replaces that with pizza. Hailing from a family of dentists, it has not been easy for Imai to carve a different path for himself. But he has kept at it. Imai heads to the mountains to find ingredients, goes foraging for mushrooms. The colour and shape of his pizza varies each time depending on what he finds.
The series is very different in texture and tone as compared to some of the recent food-centric shows such as The Bear. The grunginess and grime of the restaurant kitchen is missing from the Chef's Table, which has a slightly sanitised and almost lyrical quality to it. However, it still makes for an interesting watch, giving insights into the minds of the chefs. It also emphasises on the fact that you don't need fancy plating or ingredients to make food stand out. Often perfection lies in simplicity.