Tuesday, December 27, 2022

"Chef's Table: Pizza (Episode 1)": review

Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco and Tratto
My buddy Charles, soon after learning that I was now on Netflix, suggested several TV shows to me. Among them was "Chef's Table," a food-related docu-series that goes around the world to explore cuisine in all its forms. First appearing in 2015, "Chef's Table" has many incarnations, from "Chef's Table: Volumes I through VI" to "Chef's Table: France," "Chef's Table: BBQ," and 2022's "Chef's Table: Pizza." I gather that each series centers on a particular topic or theme, but each episode of the series centers on a representative person. On Christmas Day, I watched "Chef's Table: Pizza," Episode 1, which centers on Chris Bianco, a Bronx-born New Yorker with an initially modest set of skills, born asthmatic, who began life helping the ladies of the house in the kitchen before eventually picking up various other skills by working at local establishments.

Episode 1 leads us through Bianco's life and describes the evolution of his cooking skill and his ambitions. Bianco himself tells his own story, but the narrative is helped along by contributions from Ed Levine (founder of the well-known Serious Eats) and Brett Anderson (food writer, The New York Times). Along the way, we get shots of restaurant ambiance and the panoramic scenery in Arizona, where Bianco relocated.

Having learned lessons from his mentors, Bianco gained the wisdom to take advantage of the local farms and ranges to acquire his ingredients. Levine, at the start of the episode, came away a convert after visiting Pizzeria Bianco. One memory made him laugh: after Levine had openly claimed that the best pizza in the world was in Phoenix, an editor from Vogue told him he was crazy. Levine challenged him: go to Phoenix, eat the pizza, then call me. The editor took up the challenge and called from the airport to say: "You were right." Both Levine and Anderson seem to have become wrapped up in Bianco's life: they both tell stories that suggest a fairly intimate biographical knowledge of the man and how he thinks.

Bianco's own relentless focus, repeated in various ways throughout the episode, is on using high-quality ingredients. "Shit in, shit out," he says at the beginning of the hour in a pleasant voice reminding me of Tony Bennett's. Use bad-quality ingredients, get bad-quality results. So we see Bianco visiting local markets, bantering with the shopkeepers, making deals and arrangements, and buying only the good stuff. He's also out there with the farmers and the millers, looking at plants as they grow, running his fingers lovingly through freshly milled grain, squeezing some of it to test its hydration levels (high hydration = clumps that form in one's fist). Bianco clearly cares about his ingredients, and this impulse toward quality comes from a desire not to disappoint people. Later in the hour, Bianco talks about how, as he became more famous, the pressure not to disappoint only increased.

After years of pizza-making, though, Bianco, a lifelong asthmatic, began to suffer from a condition called baker's lung caused by inhaling pizza-oven smoke and ambient flour, day in and day out. Used to being at the battlefront when making his own food, Bianco had to learn how to scale back and delegate tasks to the people around him. He had to learn to trust, which took a real effort. Bianco still cooks, but he is no longer at the forefront the way he used to be. He ended up opening another restaurant that wasn't specifically a pizzeria: Tratto. I thought tratto might be short for trattoria ("restaurant"), but online sources tell me that tratto means something like treatment (trattare, "to treat"). There could also be an etymological connection with the Latin tractare, "draw in" or "pull," from which we get words like attract, distract, and retract. Linguistics aside, Bianco pulled himself back from being at the forefront of an American pizza revolution. He still works his magic, but more quietly.

I think it's important to note that a lot of what this episode highlights about using good, simple ingredients that are sourced locally has been common sense in Europe since forever. I'm somewhat selective, these days, when I think about what we Yanks can learn from other cultures, but one thing we can definitely learn from Europe is how to make use of the land immediately around us. It's a way of staying grounded and in harmony with one's environment, a way for people truly to be connected with the soil and the surrounding life. European towns exist in intimate dialogue with local farms; farmer's markets are a commonplace there. Quite a few Americans understand this, too, which is why the word locavore (eater of local food) has gained traction in recent years. But it would be nice if more Americans came to see this way of living as normal and not exotic. We non-farmers shouldn't be so divorced from farms. So Episode 1 had a strongly European flavor to it, in part thanks to Chris Bianco's conscious efforts to seek out local resources, and maybe also in part because Bianco deeply feels his Bronx/Italian roots. A lot of Europe lives in him.

The feel of "Chef's Table: Pizza" is strongly reminiscent of the documentary movie "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." This was one of my first thoughts after watching only the first few minutes of the episode. I did a bit of research, and lo and behold: the creator of this Netflix series is none other than David Gelb, the director of "Jiro." You can see it in the slow-motion cinematography, the lingering closeup shots on food, and the biographical focus on a representative person in the field. Different episodes of "Chef's Table" are directed by different people (Episode 1 is directed by Clay Jeter), but I imagine that David Gelb's creative hand is visible in every episode. This is his baby.

The use of commentators who contribute to the narration is a holdover from "Jiro." Brett Anderson seems a bit more distant from Chris Bianco, but Ed Levine sounds almost like a close friend of the chef. That said, I sometimes thought Levine came off as a bit too much of an overt cheerleader, a Bianco partisan who was marketing the chef. The enthusiasm he showed when recounting certain anecdotes or talking about how Chris had revolutionized this or that began to feel, as the hour rolled on, as if he were some sort of parasite gorging himself on Bianco's fame. I realize that that doesn't sound very charitable, but Levine's occasional over-enthusiasm creeped me out now and again.

But that's a minor flaw in what was, overall, a fascinating first episode. I think the "Pizza" series has six episodes. I now have high expectations that the subsequent hours will be just as good, just as filling for the soul, as this one.


John Mac said...

"soon after learning that I was now on Netflix"

Ha ha, it's early here, but when I read that, my first thought was, "Kevin got his own show?" Hell, I can even see a resemblance between you and Bianco.

Reading about Bianco reminded me a lot of our local foodie here, John. He's of the same mind regarding ingredients. Travels all the way to the market in Manila for some imports and drives to Bataan at two in the morning to get first shot at the seafood when the fishing boats roll in. Maybe Chef's Table can do an episode on him someday.

Kevin Kim said...

People like John take pride in their food.

Charles said...

Yep, it's a good series. Watching it also made me realize that I will never be a great chef--that takes a level of committment, passion, and possibly insanity that I just do not have. I will, of course, continue to cook for friends and family and attempt to perfect my skills, at least to my own humble standards.