In its third season, Chef’s Table is trying to relax. Creator David Gelb’s Netflix series is typically a paean to the kind of austere, über-expensive restaurants casually referenced as “temples” to their chosen cuisine, with the annual World’s 50 Best list as its unofficial source text. That description still applies to about half the new season’s six mini-docs, because this is still Chef’s Table: the Peruvian restaurant Central, currently fourth among the all-important 50, has its own research department, and an interlude with tyrannical Berliner Tim Raue could be retitled Whiplash: Germany. But the other half constitutes a real and intermittently successful effort at change, and the story of ramen chef Ivan Orkin represents the peak.
The proprietor of Lower East Side–by-way-of-Setagaya shop Ivan Ramen is both a perfect and atypical subject for the docuseries. On the one hand, he tells us in his opening voice-over, “You have to be all in to get into ramen” — obsession and commitment being the traits Gelb prizes above all else in his subjects. On the other? “Ramen isn’t dainty,” Orkin says, by way of explaining how a “fuck-you kinda guy” became a respected figure in the culinary world. “It’s messy.” On a show on which tweezers appear as often as knives, that’s a step off the beaten path.
The ensuing episode, which Gelb directed himself, has all the stylistic trademarks that make Chef’s Table ripe for satire: time-lapse and slow motion; awestruck testimonials from food writers and family members; reverential montages of completed dishes set to classical music. The result can be something of a circle jerk, with Chef’s Table indulging the food community’s upper echelon in its own sense of self-importance. Yet here, those stylized plates are available to any hungry New Yorker with $25 to spend (tax and tip included), a major departure from the $500-a-head tasting menus typically documented on the show. Orkin and his field get the deluxe treatment they might not get elsewhere, including this show’s previous seasons, and are implicitly placed on the same tier as Chef’s Table’s more haute-cuisine stomping grounds — with one crucial caveat: With a reduced sense of fussiness comes an increased sense of fun.
Orkin’s is a compelling human interest story waiting for a camera, even by the standards of this series’ cast of eccentrics. Growing up on Long Island as the ill-behaved misfit in a high-achieving family, Orkin found a refuge in his after-school job washing dishes at a local Japanese restaurant. The path from there to opening his own establishment was byzantine: initial move to Japan, meeting his first wife, moving back to the U.S. and attending culinary school, losing his first wife to a freak illness, meeting his second wife on a visit to Japan with his young son and marrying within months, moving back to Japan, opening the first Ivan Ramen in 2006. But as Orkin points out, in retrospect his life looks like a custom CV for his eventual capstone project: immersing himself in ramen, mastering the craft, and selling the result — not to American tourists, but to Japanese customers. (The Orkins relocated to New York in 2014 to be closer to extended family.)
Orkin openly disavows the mythology that accrues to restaurateurs of similar renown, sometimes with the enthusiastic help of Chef’s Table itself. “I’m not a ramen chef, whatever the fuck that is,” he spits with characteristic (and winning) bluntness. “I’m a cook.” His saga needs no embellishment to take its rightful place as one of Chef’s Table’s more nakedly emotional chapters. Cooking is an unconventional profession that attracts unconventional people; one of the recurring themes of Chef’s Table is the way food becomes an outlet for people who never thrived in more structured settings. A neurotic oddball who hopped continents without a plan, Orkin certainly fits that mold, with the added punch of devastating loss and inspiring-slash-romantic recovery. “It’s truly a miraculous story,” his mother remarks. “He went from darkness to light.”
Orkin’s story also avoids some of the pitfalls Gelb and his team encounter in their new efforts at diversification. The season opener is well-intentioned, introducing viewers to the work of Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun who grows her own vegetables and ferments her own soy sauce in a temple in South Korea. The episode fumbles, however, in enlisting two Westerners, chef Éric Ripert and journalist Jeff Gordinier, to tell her story, instead of letting Kwan — or her meditative work — speak for herself. The Orkin episode, meanwhile, relies on his own voice and diverse secondary sources, like Japanese ramen obsessive Hiroshi Osaki.
Orkin’s episode is different from Chef’s Table’s usual fare without fetishizing that difference, democratizing food television’s most proudly elitist show. It’s a direction the series would benefit from pushing to even less composed, more proudly sloppy extremes. Besides, Orkin’s story isn’t the only thing that works in his favor. If the crowds at either incarnation of Ivan Ramen are any judge, the ramen tastes as good as it looks. The talented filmmakers of Chef’s Table can make seemingly anything look like a million bucks. That doesn’t mean it has to cost that much in real life, and Ivan Orkin proves it.