CHEF’S TABLE: BBQ: Saving the South’s Reputation

Netflix’s hit documentary series Chef’s Table highlights individual chefs from all corners of the world making all kinds of food into an art form. It’s beautifully shot, edited, and narratively moving, as each chef tells their own story of how they made it to greatness.

The newest season centers around the overlooked intimacy of barbecue and the way it brings a whole culture together. That culture is that of the southeastern part of the USA, and how it bled into other corners of the country.

I grew up in a small town outside Nashville, Tennessee, defined by music and hospitality and comfort food. It was an amazing place to grow up, and I am proud of it. These days, though, being proud to be from the south comes with a stigma. Now that I live in Los Angeles, in a time best described as politically polarized, I have seen firsthand the judgment and assumptions of my views based on the place where I grew up. Sometimes it gets hostile and frustrating, and I have to remind myself of the beautiful place I call home as just that: beautiful.

CHEF'S TABLE: BBQ: Saving the South's Reputation
source: Netflix

By releasing a season about the barbecue, and therefore a mostly southern, community, it is given a new face. They’re not just angry racists or gun-obsessed red-necks; these are real stories of real people, creating food and community in a tumultuous time. Chef’s Table, tells beautiful stories with beautiful images and makes you appreciate the culture and community surrounding food. Now, the south gets its moment to shine.

There are two episodes in particular that perfectly embody the southern attitude and culture of barbecue. Highlighting the community and intimate detail of the food elevates the status of southern culture, and the food is fine as hell.

Episode 1: Tootsie Tomanetz

One episode focused around eighty-five-year-old Tootsie Tomanetz, the pitmaster of Snow’s Barbeque in Lexington, Texas. The episode is a beautiful image of the community coming together and supporting one another in good times and bad. Tootsie is a hardworking Texas woman and a legend in the barbeque world. A custodian at the local high school in the mornings and then headed straight to her barbeque pit, she is the definition of years of experience building a god-like reputation. She stokes the fire pit and tends to each piece of meat with attention and ease, her effortless yet mindful technique could only come from her legend status and decades of honing her craft. 

In between montages of her awe-inspiring methods of barbeque, we learn her story. Lexington is a small town in Texas, everyone knows each other, and Tootsie and her husband were known for their cooking and meat handling at the local market. Then it became Tootsie’s world, as she kept going into her 85 years of age. Later, barbeque got Tootsie through immense loss, and it was all she had left. It would have been easy to drown her pain in work and just stay at the pit all day, but because of the community she herself had built at Snow’s, Tootsie was surrounded by more love and support than she ever could have imagined. Suddenly she wasn’t just a legend pitmaster, she was family-and when family was in need, her people stepped up.

CHEF'S TABLE: BBQ: Saving the South's Reputation
source: Netflix

When Snow’s Barbeque gained national fame, visitors from all over came to Lexington. For the barbeque, yes, but also for Tootsie. She is an icon. She built this empire of barbeque and a community that she herself has relied on when she needed care. She is the matriarch of a family that people from everywhere want to be a part of. Lexington is now on the map as the best barbeque in Texas. But it’s more than just a booming business, it’s a family that comes together and to celebrate each others’ peaks and walks with them through their valleys. 

Episode 3: Rodney Scott

While Tootsie’s narrative focuses on her longtime impact on the community, South Carolina’s Rodney Scott’s episode shows his rise to success, reflecting traditionally American ideals of hard work getting you far. 

The technique Rodney is known for is “whole hog,” where you cook an entire hog for a twelve-hour period. It’s a tradition that dates back to rural areas in the south, black people on plantations, and deep cultural heritage in the world of barbeque. Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog Barbecue is one of a kind, taking a technique he learned as a child, making it his own, never giving up, and staying determined to strive forward. He looked at his future with optimism and anticipation to get out of the small town he would be stuck in forever. 

CHEF'S TABLE: BBQ: Saving the South's Reputation
source: Netflix

It’s an overtly American concept; pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, following your dreams, and working hard to make them a reality. And yet, it never gets old. I still welled up with tears seeing the footage of Rodney winning the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef Southeast. His dreams of getting out and making it big time, yet still remaining deeply rooted in his heritage and tradition, make his story unique and overall triumphant. 

Community & Food

Suddenly, the south gets inspiring. It gets personal and emotional and relatable. Maybe you see yourself in the pain Tootsie experienced, and used her work and community to get back on track. Maybe you’re in a small town desperate to get out and follow your dreams like Rodney. Or maybe you just love barbeque. 

Regardless of where you come from, Chef’s Table-Barbeque turns food into stories, the stories of people who are just like anyone else. We all have our opinions on the politics and perceptions of certain areas of the United States. But suddenly, they all fade away when we are united by emotion, life experiences, and the community food provides us all.

What do you think of this season of Chef’s Table? Let us know in the comments below!

Chef’s Table: BBQ is currently streaming on Netflix. 

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