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How Final Table’s culinary cultural diversity crumbled over time

How Final Table’s culinary cultural diversity crumbled over time

In this edition of The Confessional, Aiyanna Maciel writes about her appreciation for Netflix’s The Final Table—and her disappointment with its outcome and choices. (This essay discusses the results of the competition.)

I binged The Final Table in a weekend. At first, I was drawn in by its intensity and how I related to its representation of foods that I have experienced while traveling.

I felt a personal connection to the episodes based on my cultural affinities: Mexico, Brazil, and Spain. These episodes all chose foods and ingredients that I love and appreciate dearly, so I enjoyed these the most.

When the show opened with Mexico, I was sold. I lived in Mexico for six months when I was younger and that experience started my obsession with Latin America and Latin American cuisine. Naturally, this episode got me excited about the rest of the show and I couldn’t stop after that.

I was particularly interested in the work of the pair Charles and Rodrigo. Their use of crickets in their street tacos really brought Mexican culture and cuisine to the table, quite literally. 

They used real gold to cover the crickets, which not only added a colorful dimension that we rarely see in food, but also a historical background to their dish. The golden crickets were reminiscent of Aztec traditions that run deep in Mexico’s culinary history. 

It was this dish that kept me from abandoning this show and watching Friends for the 100th time, and, all jokes aside, I was rooting for this team with Colombian, French, and Ecuadorian roots for the remainder of the episodes.

Charles and Rodrigo continued their impressive cultural run in the episode that cooked through Spain, as their traditional Valencian paella was plated to reflect the artwork of Spanish artist Joan Miró. 

Joan Miró's painting Untitled (The Peacock Feathers)
Top: Charles Michel and Rodrigo Pacheco’s paella on Netflix’s The Final Table. Bottom: Joan Miró’s painting “Untitled (The Peacock Feathers)”

Ana Polvorosa, a Spanish actress, told the team that their paella was like her mother’s—which shows their attention to detail and tradition, as well as their creative side. It was the moments like these that truly made me appreciate the show.

The Brazil episode showed off culinary creativity

When the chefs “traveled” to Brazil to cook, I was more excited than I had been for the first three episodes, because of my Brazilian heritage. I was dying to know what the famous critics were going to choose as the main dish and how the teams would execute the dish.

I consider Brazil to have some of the best food in the world and I’m always surprised when I learn about the variety of foods and ingredients that Brazil has to offer. From a wild array of fruits and vegetables, to all the ways Brazilians use tapioca in their cooking, I am always looking for more ways to engage with this cuisine. 

The experts chose feijoada, a bean and meat stew, which has a history dating back to colonization and sugar plantations, which I think was a wise choice given the dish’s humble origins. 

We often see dishes from the working class becoming a nation’s tradition, and the food experts’ decision to use them as a challenge for world-renowned chefs allows for them to be reinterpreted through creative means, which is an aspect of this show that I highly respected. 

I was also impressed with the creativity that some of the teams incorporated into their traditional feijoada. One team described their non-traditional presentation—all the pieces separated in small portions instead of in a stew—as “samba on a plate,” which struck me funny as it was a comment from the team with a white American and a white Canadian. 

Charles and Rodrigo brought their cultural flair again as they used the cassava root to showcase the Amazonian traditions of indigenous ingredients in Brazilian cuisine, which tugged at my heartstrings because my family lives at the mouth of the mighty Amazon.

Charles Michel, Rodrigo Pacheco, Final Table, Netflix
Charles Michel and Rodrigo Pacheco, contestants on The Final Table (Photo by Adam Rose/Netflix)

They carved their own plates out of the cassava root to represent the indigenous histories of hunting and then using the environment around the rainforest to serve and eat the food, which is not only representative of Brazilian history, but is also incredibly sustainable, something the team was very serious about.

Their attention to the detail of their dish resonated with my appreciation for the foods that my family has always cooked for me when I visit Brazil. 

Final Table chooses a mainstream course

After the three episodes that I felt emotionally attached to, I lost some interest in the show, but I was determined to finish it, partially just to see which countries the chefs were going to go to next.

The choices weren’t too surprising: Italy, France, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. These are certainly places that I feel the cuisine is worth showcasing; however, I thought all of the show’s choices were a little mainstream.

I was unimpressed with the episodes about the U.S. and the U.K. The national dish choices of the “English Breakfast” and “Thanksgiving Dinner” seemed unoriginal.

Watching the U.S. episode, I found myself wondering what they were going to choose (hot dogs? hamburgers? Fourth of the July backyard barbecue?), but was disappointed that the choice was a meal we only have once per year, and that is representative of an increasingly controversial holiday in this country.

As our country becomes more aware of the atrocious behavior against Native Americans when Thanksgiving became an American tradition, we are less and less likely to celebrate it in the same way. 

By no means do I think Thanksgiving is a completely evil holiday, but seeing the teams on The Final Table trying to be inclusive and culturally representative, the choice of a Thanksgiving dinner just seemed like it did not belong on this global table.

A diverse competition ends up with all white men at the end

Despite my appreciation of some of the cultural representations on this show, I have some major problems with it as well, including the overly-dramatic host and confusing build-up toward an unknown achievement in the culinary world—sitting at The Final Table itself.

My issues were more demographic. I struggled with the lack of female representation. Though I respect male chefs and recognize that in today’s society it is a male-dominated field, I thought that a show that was traveling the diverse world of food would include a more diverse gender dynamic. 

There was only one pair that was made up of two women, and only a handful of other teams that had a man and a woman. By the end of the show, all of the women end up leaving the show—making the last few episodes and the grand finale quite testosterone-heavy.

Additionally, I really struggled with the last couple episodes, when they eliminated the chefs with the most depth and talent in their cooking. 

As I mentioned before, I was partial to the cooks from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, as well as the women from India and New Zealand, because they used their culture and flair in their cooking. I loved the French-Colombian chef, who valued sustainability, art, and history in his cooking.

Yet somehow at the end, we ended up with a Canadian, an American, and two Australians who—despite their varied backgrounds in cooking talents—really didn’t push the norm or break any barriers in their cooking. 

At the end, it was the American man from a humble background that ended up with a seat at the “Final Table,” with the other nine chefs from around the globe. 

Though I was disappointed, I was not surprised that an American won a Netflix original cooking show, given that the hype of the show is really on American soil and the American offerings on Netflix. 

Final Table’s problematic choices

The Final Table, Netflix, set, soundstage
The Final Table’s soundstage set, which is large and vast and appears to hover over cities and the entire frickin’ planet. (Photo by Netflix)

I enjoyed my weekend watching and appreciating the food in this show, but reflecting on it is wildly different. I was excited while watching the show, but, looking back, I am able to see many of the problematic choices the production team made, as well as the cultural and demographic oversights that could have made for a stronger, more diverse show that would appeal to a more global audience. 

Beyond the lack of female representation in the chef teams and the fact that a cis-gender, white, male won the entire competition, there are a few points that I feel are important to mention that affected the way I saw the series’ production.  

Though I enjoyed getting to see some celebrity icons and food critics of each country, I wonder if those representatives would be the most iconic according to the average British, Indian, French, or Brazilian civilian.  

I think Dax Shepard is great, but would the average American consider him to be an ambassador for the American palate? I’m not sure.  

I am curious as to how they managed to strike a deal with the representatives they chose and how they were able to sell this show to celebrities like supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio from Brazil. 

In the same vain, I’d be interested to learn how they chose the token chefs from each country to be the final judges in each round. Were these really the most famous, most decorated chefs in each place? Were they truly representative of the diversity of the cuisine of each nation represented? I’m not sure that can be answered, but I still wonder about the decision-making.

I know that Netflix was trying to create a new age of cooking shows that brought the best chefs, the hottest celebrities, and the most diversity to the table, but it felt underwhelming when it didn’t match the branding or dramatic tone of the show. 

By creating a new high in culinary culture of trying to “sit at the final table” with a bunch of famous chefs, Netflix really misses the mark on encouraging diverse cooking, and creates a competitive culture that ends in chefs boasting about how much experience they have cooking certain foods from certain countries.  

I think the concept of the show is a striking effort to break the barriers of cooking shows through color, flair, and innovation. 

But, is a Netflix show that is only available on an online streaming platform that may not even be available in every country around the world the way to break those barriers? After all, isn’t the idea of The Final Table to bring together the world’s best chefs to showcase the world’s best food?

Our global community is not monochromatic, and individual cuisine is one of the best ways to express just how diverse we are.

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About the author

  • Aiyanna Maciel is an undergraduate student at Stetson University studying Spanish Translation and Latin American Studies. She is an avid traveler, having lived in Mexico, Brazil, and Spain, and visited a few other Latin American hot spots. She enjoys writing about topics that spark her passion for cultural awareness, social justice, and breaking down barriers between groups of people.

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