Get ready to be hungry. Really hungry.
Expanding its current slate of culinary programming, Netflix is dishing out a new food competition series bringing together 24 chefs from around the world hoping to make it to The Final Table.
Starting with 12 teams of two (all the pairs know each other — friends, mentor/mentee, business partners, etc.), each team is tasked with making the national dish of a country revealed at the beginning of each episode. A panel of three judges (famous actors, dignitaries, food critics, etc.) from that country determine a bottom three, who then have a cook-off where they have to make one ingredient, as revealed by an all-star chef from that country, the star of the dish.
“The India one is amazing just because of the pantry they were able to get and the flavors all of these chefs were able to cook,” host and Bon Appétit editor at large Andrew Knowlton tells EW of the episodes he thinks viewers will be talking about. “And France, because France is where a lot of these chefs started cooking and got these techniques. To see that, that was kind of amazing.”
Besides India and France, the culinary traditions of Mexico, Spain, the U.K., Brazil, Italy, Japan, and the U.S. are also on the menu. And many of the chefs are from these countries. That, of course, doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to succeed.
“You would think those people from a certain country would do really well, but sometimes it’s better to come at it from a new perspective,” Knowlton explains, “and I think some of the culinary ambassadors, because they were from a certain place, probably judged the people from their homeland a little bit more harshly.”
Below, Knowlton explains why he was so excited about this new series, what Netflix is bringing to the culinary game, whether he disagreed with any of the judges’ decisions, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I don’t know how often you get presented opportunities to be a part of shows like this, but what is it that excited you most about it, just from reading it on paper or when someone described it to you?
ANDREW KNOWLTON: I’ve done some stuff in the past. When I was presented with this opportunity, I think, number one was Netflix [laughs] — that’s an amazing opportunity with their reach and being able to be seen in 160 countries. What intrigued me just with the show was, (a) the talent they had secured, from the contestants to the food critics to the all-star chefs — Grant Achatz from the U.S. and Andoni Aduriz from Spain and Anne-Sophie Pic from France — and I just think it being an international, global show, that it’s not seen as an American show, I think that was the most intriguing thing. Not to sound like a politician or anything, but we’re so different around the world, but food is that one thing we can all relate to, and I just thought, how cool to do a show that truly is global in its reach, it’s global in its participants.… So I think it was a combination of the talent, Netflix, and that reach. I still pinch myself that I was able to be a part of this.
You mentioned the reach of Netflix, but what do you think they’re doing to change the game specifically for culinary TV?
I think they can get, whether it’s Samin [Nosrat]’s show — I don’t know whether you’ve seen [Salt Fat Acid Heat] — that is a beautiful show that I’m not sure without Netflix would’ve… I mean of course it probably would’ve been on somewhere, but the fact that they jumped at something like that, a show that maybe 10 or 15 years ago maybe wouldn’t have been on TV or would’ve been something else, and the fact that they have the smarts to do shows that are just beyond perhaps what we’re used to, and with David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and I think their foray into the unscripted world, at least the culinary arena, it’s kind of a natural evolution of all these shows that literally I’ve grown up with in my career. It’s that next step in catapulting chefs and showing the artistry of it, taking a little bit of that Chef’s Table vibe, showing that beauty in showing a chef slice a beautiful piece of tuna and kind of elevating it. It’s not a show that’s grounded in sabotage, or we’re not trying to make anyone look silly; we think that showing what chefs do and showing how hard they work and putting them on the spot to create, that creates its own intrigue.
Knowing chefs and restaurants and how these competitions work, how do you describe the energy or nerves that you see come over them once you say, “Your one hour starts now?”
Well, I think chefs are so used to working within the context of their restaurant — they have their system in place, they have their team — and when you kind of throw them into this situation where they don’t know what they’re cooking, they’re cooking now for the people they’ve looked up to their whole career, that’s a daunting task. If someone says to you or me, “Go write a 2,000-word essay on something and then we’re going to have Hemingway and M.F.K. Fisher judge you,” I don’t care how trained you are… that makes you nervous. And the great thing is, to be a great chef in general — just like being a great athlete or a great musician — you have to be competitive, you have to love to duke it out, and I think they naturally thrive in that situation. They want to win. On this show there is no monetary reward, there’s no restaurant; they are solely battling it out for a place at the final table, and that ultimately just comes down to getting recognition from their peers. Speaking for me as a writer, I love when I people send me emails like, “Oh, I loved that story,” but when it’s another writer or someone I’ve always looked up to who says, “Hey, that piece you wrote was awesome,” that makes it worth it. I think the weight of that is what carries it for these guys and gals, it’s what made them do it and get out of their comfort zones.
In trying to describe the show, I’ve told people that there’s an Iron Chef aspect to it, and there’s the added element of how chefs sometimes have to cook in teams for challenges on other shows like Top Chef. But that doesn’t really do it justice. How do you describe The Final Table?
I think it tips the hat to other culinary shows, but I think the scale of it’s what’s changed, and the globalness of it. We’re not giving them any crazy challenges; they have to cook the national dish from each of the countries interpreted in their own way, but where it really changes is, they’re not just cooking for themselves, by themselves — they’re cooking with somebody else. And as you watch the show, the teams that succeed are the ones that worked together…. In the first episode, it’s kind of surprising who goes out in that first episode. That’s something that, you would think those people from a certain country would do really well, but sometimes it’s better to come at it from a new perspective, and I think some of the culinary ambassadors, because they were from a certain place, probably judged the people from their homeland a little bit more harshly, the way if you had a kid on a baseball team or a softball team and you were the coach, you’d probably be a little bit harder on them.
You’ve been a judge on Iron Chef, and of course you have years of experience writing about food. How do you think all that helps inform your job here as host? Do you feel like you’re better able to help steer them away from potential mistakes, knowing what it’s like to be that judge?
I’m thankful to be on the other side of the table now and not have to have to look at the chef and say, “You overcooked that piece of fish.” [Laughs] I’m happy to not have to be the bad guy anymore. I think the biggest thing is, I can ask those questions — if I see something that doesn’t look right or I am questioning the use of an ingredient or something, I think that’s the perspective I bring. I think one thing I realized I brought to the table was that working at Bon Appétit for 20 years, I can be as pretentious or as high and mighty as I want, but at the end of the day I’m writing for a certain reader and I know who that reader is. I think the same thing goes for the viewer: I always considered myself that conduit between the viewer and the chef to ask the questions that perhaps the home viewer would ask. So I think that and having done the critical part of it and the critiquing, but also having to try to appeal to a wider base, that is what I brought to the project.
I see you taste things along the way, but I hope you got to taste some of the final, fully composed dishes!
I did not have any say in the judging, but after the judges — I kind of ate with them just, honestly, so I could ask the right questions…. I have no sway in anything, but I kind of knew, like, that one tasted a little salty, or that one was amazing. So it was about just having that perspective on things. So yes, I did.
That said, were there any decisions made that you disagreed with?
Well, you know, I was just reading a review of Missy Robbins’ new place in New York, Misi. She’s a great chef, this is her second place. The New York Times gave it three stars, and then I was reading Eater and they gave it one star. The same exact restaurant. It just proves that food is so subjective. I don’t think anyone left the show who didn’t deserve to necessarily, but I do think I was surprised at times when somebody ended up in the bottom three. But again, some people prefer acidity — I love acid and bright flavors — some people respond to salt. I think that’s the beauty of food: It is subjective.
The Final Table is now streaming on Netflix.