Somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred people move to Austin a day, but it’s probably safe to say none so far hit town with Andrew Knowlton’s food bona fides: he’s been at Bon Appétit for eighteen years and served as the magazine’s restaurant editor and compiler of its influential Hot 10 Best New Restaurants lists. But this summer, he and his wife and two daughters traded New York for Austin. He’s still an editor at large for the magazine, but he’s also part of the team that’s transformed a former union hall near Austin’s Zilker Park into a buzzed-about boutique hotel and restaurant: the Carpenter.
Will people be showing up at The Carpenter just to get a glimpse of Knowlton? Possibly. Knowlton is already a food television veteran—he’s been a judge on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef—but it’s a good guess Netflix’s The Final Table will be his star turn. Last week, Netflix released all ten episodes of what many see as its biggest and most ambitious attempt at reimagining reality food competitions. The series features twelve teams of two chefs from around the world cooking the national dishes of Mexico, Spain, England, Brazil, France, Japan, the U.S., India, and Italy. Each episode focuses on a different country and its cuisine, and ultimately, chefs are competing for a seat at a “Final Table” made up of what Netflix describes as “the greatest chefs from around the globe.” Knowlton is the host for what Eater says “could make shows like Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Chopped—all on the air for more than a decade—seem irrelevant.”
By now, maybe you’ve seen The Final Table or even knows who wins, but on this week’s podcast, there are no spoilers. Our conversation is focused on trends in fine dining, the state of food criticism, and the larger debates: small plates, the rise of the celebrity chef, and whether BBQ pitmasters are cooks or chefs.
Some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
I think we are seeing [chefs] kind of knowing the history of something, knowing a cuisine, and then kind of riffing it and making it your own. I think the biggest thing that defined this year’s list, and I think which defines great restaurants in general these days, is just to have a take on something— don’t just put out food because you think it’s a trendy ingredient or that everyone is serving waffles right now. Have a point of view about something, whether it’s writing a book or music or painting. If you look at the list, it’s a diverse list, but there’s always the, the common themes are there: somebody who’s got passion behind it and it could not have existed in any other city except for that city.
On Small Plates
Now they masquerade as “snacks” too. They don’t just call them small plates anymore. I think it started with people traveling to Spain, or Korea, and Japan, where you really did have more of that philosophy of sharing plates at the beginning. I’m in the middle of the argument. I hate sharing food with everybody at the table. That’s why I have a life rule that I do not go out to eat with more than three other people. I don’t do six-tops because it becomes a scrum. And all three people order the fried chicken. Why would you do that? Let’s try a bunch of other things. I don’t like to share everything, but I do want a taste of a lot of things. So if you’re eating with me you have to be ready for me to reach over onto your plate and grab something. I’m that rude. Even though I don’t really like sharing, I have to professionally. I have to know what that tastes like.
The Trend Away From Fine Dining
I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. When I was growing up in New York and kind of cutting my teeth, the dream was to go to Le Bernardin and actually put on a jacket or a dress or whatever and go out. And I think one of the great things that’s happened since I’ve been documenting food is the casualization and the democratization of food, because it can get really expensive and a lot of people can’t afford that. On the one hand, it’s amazing that we have these kind of casual restaurants that still are getting great ingredients, still have great service. But I will say some of that romanticism of dining out, for me personally, has been taken away. I mean, here in Austin, there’s so few places that I would throw on a jacket and go celebrate something or just say, “Hey, let’s go have a beautiful meal” with the most professional service and high-end everything. And I think you have to have all of that. You need both sides of the coin. I just hope it doesn’t go away, because I think it has a place. And I don’t want the fine dining kind of calling cards, which is beautiful silverware and plateware and maîtres d’ and sommeliers who know what they’re doing, that kind of service to go away. And sometimes I think that’s what happens with casualization. People think because it is casual, none of that stuff matters or they don’t have to give great service.
On Whether Pitmasters Are Chefs
Just like any chef who is really cooking every day, pitmasters have created a culture around their restaurant—whether it’s Tootsie at Snow’s or Aaron Franklin. They’ve done the time and they’ve done the duty and they are chefs. But they have a smaller window of things they’re serving. But the one thing that’s hard about barbecue is the expectation with people traveling to Texas to have barbecue and standing in line for that one piece of brisket from heaven. That is just on a different level than I think most restaurants and chefs ever experience. There’s very few restaurants that somebody can wait two and a half, three hours in line for and still be okay about that. Can you imagine going to a normal restaurant and being told it’s going to be a two-and-a-half-hour wait?
On The Final Table
I’m sure this show will make stars out of some people that people didn’t know before. But I think what it will really do is, for some reason or other people like to watch other people cook. And when they have a certain kind of timeframe that they have to do that or they have to cook a certain dish, that naturally just ramps up the heat and makes things exciting. But I think what people will like about the show is just the beauty of it. It’s almost like watching Stevie Ray Vaughan or Gary Clark Jr. just play the guitar, just on a set playing the guitar, without throwing them into a big music festival or something. It’s just very intimate.
It’s been interesting already dealing with the public and consumers when it comes to food and allergies and things they don’t eat. I had no idea that people were like that when it came to food. I know chefs had been bitching for years. But you know, the amount of substitutions you get with food these days is just unreal. Who orders a club sandwich without any turkey and mustard? Who does that? There are chefs out there not willing to make any substitutions, and I don’t blame them. There’s a great reason for that. You’re not going to go to a Phosphorescent show and request a Radiohead song. This is the same. If you chose to go out on a Friday night, you could’ve gone anywhere. You could have stayed at home and had gluten-free pasta, but you chose to spend two hours of your life in this restaurant that hopefully transports you to a different place. And then for you to say, “I don’t do this, this, or this”? If you have a legitimate allergy, I get that. But I think consumers don’t realize how hard it is when they do request special stuff.