The new season of “Chef’s Table” takes viewers out of the spotless, stainless-steel kitchens where the Netflix series has made its bones and leads them into more smoky environs where men and women are keeping the ancient flame of barbecue alive. Yet over the course of four episodes, the show’s producers have done something else, too, even if they didn’t mean to. They’ve raised the age-old question of “What is barbecue?”
The series doesn’t answer the question as much as it complicates it. “Chef’s Table,” which debuts Wednesday, visits places that most folks would recognize as barbecue joints, including Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, and Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, S.C. But the producers also travel to Australia and Mexico to shadow two cooks on opposite ends of the spectrum: Lennox Hastie, a fine-dining chef in Sydney who pushes the boundaries of open-flame cooking, and Rosalia Chay Chuc, a home cook in the town of Yaxunah who strives to preserve the pre-Hispanic tradition of slow-roasting pork in an earthen pit with fire-heated rocks.
“We felt like we couldn’t do [the subject] justice in a single episode, so we wanted to show kind of a broad spectrum of barbecue,” David Gelb, creator of “Chef’s Table,” says during a phone interview.
“Yes, of course, the subject of what is real barbecue is something that is hotly debated among aficionados,” he continues. “We’re not taking a perspective on, ‘This right or this is wrong.’ That’s not our place. We’re filmmakers. We’re not experts on the subject so much as we are storytellers trying to tell the points of view of our characters.”
True to the approach that Gelb developed with his documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — the soft-focus lighting, the string-quartet soundtrack, the slow-mo camera pans, the deep character studies, hallmarks so familiar they’ve inspired imitators and parodies — the “Chef’s Table” crew gets up close and personal with the four principals at the heart of the new season. The crew’s art lies less in its ability to frame a dish in mouthwatering ways (though, god knows, some dishes will make you inch closer to the screen, as if you could inhale their aromas) but in its ability to get people to open up.
Time is the ally of any storyteller, and the “Chef’s Table” team spent two weeks with each cook in the barbecue series, sometimes in communities and cultures that don’t easily spill their secrets to outsiders. But the directors and producers coaxed stories, often heartbreaking ones, from each of their subjects: Tootsie Tomanetz, the 85-year-old pitmaster at Snow’s, talks about the death of her husband and son; Rodney Scott talks about the estranged relationship with his father; Hastie, the perfectionist behind Firedoor, talks about how his career path alienated his Michelin-starred mentor; and Chay Chuc talks about her fear of rejection from those outside her tight-knit Mayan community.
Their quotes are intimate and sometimes raw, the kind of anecdotes teased out of people only after a sense of trust has been established between the person in front of the camera and the crew behind it. I asked Gelb how the “Chef’s Table” crew pulled it off.
“It’s just spending time together, talking,” he says. “You know, we share our own stories with them. We are not at all guarded about our own journey, in terms of getting here. That’s kind of our interview style or at least it’s my interview style. . . . If we’re going to ask something that’s difficult, we present something analogous in our own lives, if we can.”
“We share about ourselves so that it becomes a conversation,” he adds.
The series begins with an episode on Tomanetz, the silver-haired octogenarian with the bowlegged gait and the soft Texas drawl. In 2008, Snow’s — named for owner Kerry Bexley, known as “snowman” as a boy — leapfrogged all the famous smokehouses in the state to find itself atop Texas Monthly’s best barbecue list. Tomanetz instantly became a celebrity in her senior years, not that it went to her head. She still works as a custodian in the Giddings Independent School District during the week, but wakes up early each Saturday morning to drive to Lexington and cook seasoned meats over hot coals, which she personally shovels under the custom-made pits.
Born during the Great Depression and raised on a farm, Tomanetz has been running barbecue pits, off and on, for nearly 50 years. When she says that barbecue has the ability to bring people together, she doesn’t offer up this cliche as a way to market Snow’s. Tomanetz has, quite literally, lived through all the great distractions of the past century: television, video games, the internet, cellphones. She knows how customers behave when they dig into a platter of her barbecue. Phones get tucked away (well, after that requisite Instagram post) and the conversations get started.
Barbecue’s communal atmosphere is the ghost that haunts this series. All the episodes, says Gelb, were filmed before the pandemic settled in for the long haul. There is no mention of the coronavirus, yet viewers are painfully aware of the virus’s effect on their ability to jump on a plane and visit one of the featured places, assuming they are even open to the public. (Snow’s is not, though you can have meats shipped to your house.)
“When we were filming it, these stories had been untouched by that event. It hadn’t happened yet. It seems not exactly relevant to the stories as they were being told,” Gelb says. As such, the creator adds, this new season “plays almost like a period piece.”
Perhaps that’s appropriate. Barbecue is often about preserving traditions that date back generations, if not centuries, whether the whole hog techniques that Scott learned by his father’s side in rural South Carolina or the long, painstaking process for making cochinita pibil, the Mayan dish in which everything is made by hand: the marinade, the tortillas, the earthen pit. Even the hog is butchered at Chay Chuc’s home before being prepped for the hot stones. Only Hastie at the Firedoor is working without an old ragged blueprint: He has developed methods to fire-roast or smoke red kangaroo, burrata, Tasmanian octopus and countless vegetables grown on Australian farms.
“We’re still trying to keep some of that fine-dining DNA that we initially featured,” Gelb says. “But it’s certainly not the focus of the show anymore. The show is about people.”
“Chef’s Table” was moving beyond rarefied, tasting-menu kitchens — and the exclusion that often comes with them — well before the racial justice movement started shaking up the system in America. But Gelb says recent protests have reinforced the producers’ resolve to evolve the series even more in the future, once they can figure out how to safely shoot during the pandemic.
“We can use our platform to help move the culture forward, by presenting more female chefs and creating role models for young people,” Gelb says. “We’re trying to think about how we can help present stories that can inspire more people, more non-White chefs, to realize that you can make it at the highest level.”
Scott may be one of those role models. The only son of parents who ran their own variety store and part-time smokehouse, Scott now is the face of his own barbecue business, which already has two locations and is aiming to open a third in Atlanta. When he saw the rough-cut of his episode, Scott says it “blew my mind. I was like, ‘Who is this person? That’s me! Wow!’ ”
“I never knew,” he adds, “how interesting my life was.”