Cooking Documentaries Aren't About Food. They're About Life.

How "Cooked," "Chef's Table," and other food docs aim straight for your soul.

"Is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienating, any time less wasted than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?"

This is a quote by Michael Pollan featured in the four-part Netflix documentary Cooked, as well as his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, on which it's based. A romantic notion, it nicely sums up the lessons he attempts to teach in both: that paying attention to food's relationship with nature and humanity allows us to connect with each other on a very fundamental level. Essentially, it's the idea that there's no currency more universal than a good, home-cooked meal.

An increasing number of food, cooking, and restaurant documentaries have centered themselves on deeper themes like this as of late, and when zooming out to view them all as a group, it becomes clear that they aren't really about food at all — they're about life.

Of course, these works are about food in a literal sense. But while the acclaimed Jiro Dreams of Sushi centers on a world-famous sushi restaurant and Chef's Table examines the unique cuisines crafted by six elite chefs around the world, the former is really about the endless pursuit of perfection in providing the best possible experience to a customer, and the latter explores how the personal lives and attitudes of each chef inform his or her creativity in the realm of cooking. These projects aren't specifically about sushi or the dishes served at six high-ranking restaurants. They're more generally about the human aspect of preparing food and what a unique artistic canvas it provides for stirring something within the people who eat it.

Whereas reality shows such as Chopped and Top Chef focus on the act of cooking food under the stress of various challenges like limited time, limited ingredients, or both, food documentaries dive deep into the people and the culture surrounding food. This is true whether the center is something as specific as an old method for making cheese or as broad as the worldwide grain economy.

The entry point to these heavier themes is, of course, marvelous shots of world-class food. To watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi on an empty stomach is akin to torture — the sushi that 90-year-old Jiro Ono (85 in the film) and his staff make is beautifully shot and the fish truly looks like it would melt in your mouth. However, it's Jiro's relentless drive that really elevates the film. Although his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro has three Michelin stars and he's widely regarded as the greatest sushi chef in the world, he says in the movie he is still reaching for the top, "but no one knows where the top is!"

Even so, clearly what he's done so far is nothing short of incredible, because people flock to his tiny establishment in a Tokyo subway from all over the world. Why? Because his food isn't just food. It's art that makes the consumer feel something.

"There are dynamics in the way the sushi is served, just like music," a narration explains in the documentary. "You're consuming Jiro's philosophy with every bite."

People rarely consider the idea they might be consuming a philosophy when they sink their teeth into food, but this increasingly seems to be a point cooking documentaries try to drive home. Just watch this clip an episode of Chef's Table, featuring Francis Mallmann, a man who describes his own life as "a path at the edge of uncertainty."

In the scene, as Mallmann and his team prepare a traditional Patagonian fire-and-earth-cooked meal, he laments the way we've raised children to stay in their "comfortable chairs" for their entire lives, which crushes their dreams and creativity.

"You don't grow on a secure path," he says. "All of us should conquer something in life, and it needs a lot of work, and it needs a lot of risk. In order to grow and to improve, you have to be there a bit at the edge of uncertainty."

So, sure, the meal that comes out the other end of this sequence looks incredible, but what's the real idea driven home to viewers? That food cooked with fire and smoke in the earth is naturally delicious? No, although it's clear that's the case. The main goal is to impart Mallmann's specific worldview through the screen and appeal to viewers' hearts.

Even Anthony Bourdain is primarily talking about life as he runs around the world trying different cuisines. On No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, he's always offered his take on the connection between food and culture in a much more sarcastic way than the aforementioned documentaries, but his points are no less potent. He wants people to eat, drink, and experience different cultures as long as it doesn't kill them. If they flirt with death along the way, well, it probably turns into a pretty good story.

Bourdain's sharp personality aside, though, all of these works detailing the world of cooking and food very clearly share a crucial piece of DNA, and it's the appreciation — however somber or joyful — that eating a delicious meal is one of the most critical ways we connect to our families, our cultures, and our humanity. Pollan's Cooked is easily the most aggressive about the ways we've lost touch with that fact thanks to the mass production of food by corporations, but they all likely feel the same way about an over-processed, mechanical approach to feeding the world.

"The meal is this incredible human institution," explains Pollan. "When we learned to cook is when we became truly human."

So while his show and the others are all ostensibly about food, this mentality proves that what they're really gunning for, in one way or another, is the soul. Without spelling it out, they plead that good, pure food means good, pure art, and in turn a good, pure life. We'd all do well to remember that.

Cover image: Netflix US & Canada via YouTube