Seven cringe-worthy moments in Netflix’s awful food competition show, “Final Table”

Image: Adam Rose/Netflix
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Final Table, the new Netflix cooking competition, feels ambitious. Twenty-four contestants cook for nine of the most accomplished chefs in the world, plus a cast of celebrity “culinary ambassadors”—all on an enormous, gleaming set tricked out to take stunning overhead action shots.

In its execution though, the show is a careless disaster, with a shocking lack of self-awareness.

First of all, it just doesn’t feel original in tone or concept. It’s a lot like Top Chef, but in a clear effort to set itself apart, the structure of each episode is just weird. It takes itself very seriously, but without the fun of the soaring camp theatrics of the Iron Chef franchise.

Worst of all, Final Table comes across as completely tone deaf, as if no one participating in the show has been following any of the conversations going on around cultural appropriation, sexual harassment, and representation—in the food and restaurant worlds especially. Despite calling itself a global cooking competition, Final Table only scratches the surface of non-European and American food cultures. And it’s rife with cringe-worthy moments.

Here are seven of the worst. (Warning: mild spoilers follow.)

The leering at Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio

The way that restaurant culture has allowed sexual harassment and assault to go unchecked has been a major topic in food news over the past year. Why in the world then, would Final Table indulge in quite so many gratuitous reaction shots of male chefs when they see Alessandra Ambrosio, the Brazilian supermodel?

Image for article titled Seven cringe-worthy moments in Netflix’s awful food competition show, “Final Table”
Image: Adam Rose/Netflix

Ambrosio appears on the show alongside a famous singer and a restaurant critic as one of the culinary ambassadors who judge the Brazil episode. After she tells one duo that their food is so delicious that they can come to her house and cook anytime, the show cuts to the two chefs sitting on stools, doing a post-competition interview. One crows that while he’d be happy to cook for her, he “doesn’t do anything for free,” elbowing his teammate conspiratorially while they laugh.

The unavoidable implication is that they would expect some sort of sexual favors in exchange for feijoada. It’s an uncomfortable moment of frat boy humor that goes unchecked, which means the show allows one of its judges to be sexually objectified, with zero pushback.

The fancy French challenge

“As a culinary challenge it doesn’t get any tougher than this, because for many, French cooking IS cooking,” host Andrew Knowlton says, by way of introducing the first challenge during the France episode.

Final Table bills itself as an international cooking show, but the Western bias is clear. The vast culinary realm of China is left out of the competition altogether (perhaps because China is one of the very few corners of the globe where Netflix is unavailable).

There’s a clear pecking order for cuisines on Final Table and not just French food, but fancy French food is at the top. Many of the dishes the chefs are tasked with preparing are food of the people—feijoada, tacos, English breakfast, Thanksgiving dinner. An entire sub-continent of beautiful spices is distilled into a challenge in which the chefs cook their interpretation of butter chicken on the episode that visits Indian cuisine. In France, however, the chefs cook an obscure and slightly ridiculous dish that was invented for King Louis the XIV, involving truffles and hare’s blood.

The blithe description of slave-run sugar plantations

Each week on Final Table takes the contestants to a new country. The first challenge is to prepare their take on a classic national dish. In Brazil, they are tasked with cooking feijoada, a black bean and meat stew, which Knowlton introduces, saying, ”Its humble origins are believed to date back to the kitchens of sugarcane plantations, where slaves would cook black beans with off-cuts of meat such as pigs ears, feet and tails.” The sunny depiction of enslaved people cooking delicious food makes slavery sound like a folksy, outdated custom, not the brutal, dehumanizing institution it was.

Andrew Knowlton
Andrew Knowlton
Image: Adam Rose/Netflix

One of the biggest conversations in food right now is about culinary appropriation, and how and why certain groups of people have come to cook certain foods. African-American writers like Michael Twitty are delving into the ways that forced migration and slavery have shaped Southern foodways with nuance and care. In Ugly Delicious, David Chang grapples with questions of who gets to cook food from other cultures. Admittedly, Chang is sometimes self-righteous and clumsy, but at least he’s engaging with the question and doing the work. Final Table is not.

That unappetizing pumpkin plate

There’s an old saw about the unsophisticated rube who looks at a modernist painting and sneers, “My kid could have done that.” Final Table includes a pumpkin battle in which seemingly raw slices of pumpkin are served on a plate made from a slice of pumpkin, that inspires a similar response. Pumpkin sashimi on half a jack-o-lantern? My kid makes a great mud pie with grass crumble you should check out sometime.

One of the unavoidable frustrations of cooking shows is that it’s impossible to translate flavor to home viewers, but there’s not even an attempt made to bring us in on the alleged magic at work in this dish. It also beats out a pumpkin curry entree that looks incredibly appealing and delicious, and is critiqued because the size of the puri bread adorning it seems too large for the amount of curry on the plate. Has any actual diner every complained about having too much deliciously puffed fried flatbread? The chefs on Final Table are told again and again that their food should tell a story, but it’s clear from moments like this that certain narratives matter more than others.

When chefs are described as “female chefs”

The eponymous “final table” is a group of nine renowned chefs from around the world. When they are all introduced in the final episode, two of the three women in the group are identified as “female chefs” instead of simply “chefs.” Come on.

The cat fight

Lack of representation of women and people of color has been a big issue in food television in general, and on Netflix in particular. Five of the 24 contestants on Final Table are women, and three of the nine judges. There’s just one team of two women in the competition, and that is the only team that is ever shown expressing frustration with one another.

An entire episode is built around tension between Monique Fiso and Amninder Sandhu, and while it seems clear that they were indeed having a rough go of it that day, the editing of their interactions feels cheap. It’s something you’d expect on Real Housewives—not on a show about professionals at the top of their game. In a setup designed to create anxiety and tension, its unsurprising that contestants will sometimes clash. But it’s notable that none of the male contestants’ spats are given this much air time.

The whole Thanksgiving episode

“The United States, an enduring symbol of freedom for over 200 years. Its diversity is what makes America different and delicious,” says Knowlton, introducing the the USA episode. Three white, male judges then preside over a challenge that tasks the contestants with preparing their take on Thanksgiving dinner. Another white man presides over the second round. Mayonnaise-crusted turkey breast and a deep-friend Thanksgiving sandwich are lauded. A team that constrains itself to using indigenous ingredients is among the losers. Diversity, it turns out, is not delicious.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the episode comes at the very beginning, when Knowlton announces that the contestants will be cooking American food. A team of blonde guys point finger-guns at one another before going in for bro grabs, and then starting to chant “USA, USA.”

The camera then cuts to the only two-woman team, both women of color. They glance nervously at one another as they clap, smiles tight, eyes worried.

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