Like most avid binge watchers, I was sucked into Netflix’s Final Table. But if, like Patrick Star, you have been living under a rock and have no clue what I’m referring to, Final Table is an intense cooking competition highlighting international cuisines starring world-renowned cooks. Every episode, teams of two duke it out in a huge stadium in front of a live audience and try to put their own spin on signature dishes from several countries.
I have mixed feelings about this show; although it is undeniably entertaining to watch food be transformed by talented chefs, this Netflix original has a few areas it could definitely improve on. The show itself felt confused in its format, which is part competition, part documentary. It also falls short in terms of diversity, not only in its cast of competitors, judges and national ambassadors, but just in the over global cuisines represented, highlighting mostly Western countries. And the entire continent of Africa was ignored. Instead, England’s cuisine was highlighted...a country not exactly known for its gastronomical prowess.
But in the end I find myself laughing at the irony that I, a self-declared culinary novice, judge the efforts by these incredibly talented chefs while I would definitely fall flat on my face if put in their position. Instead of actually attempting to cook my way around the world, I put myself to the test (not literally), to see which challenges I would fail miserably at, and which ones I might survive by the skin of my teeth.
20 Sea Urchin, Japan
I would 100% not know where to begin with this ingredient. How do you handle it? How do you cook it? Do I keep the spiky bits for decoration? Are they meant to be eaten? So many questions, so little time to figure out any of the answers. I love seafood, but I don’t normally cook with it myself because I am so out of my depth—imagine cooking with sea urchin. I applaud the brave chefs who underwent this final challenge because I would be standing there with a blank look on my face, hoping my partner was more knowledgeable than I.
19 Hare à la Royale, France
Hare à la Royale is literally so overindulgent that I think I gained five pounds just watching this episode. The meal combines wild hare, red wine, foie gras and a medley of other ingredients. Why was this even chosen as the signature dish for the country? Do regular people really eat this that frequently? This challenge would be extremely hard for me as I take forever to prep and cook and hare à la royale normally takes forever to make. Also, the judges were extremely intimidating and I fear I would insult them by butchering such a regal dish.
18 Kaiseki, Japan
I definitely appreciate Japan's cuisine: the skill set and techniques involved are masterful, but it’s not always a cuisine I gravitate towards. What? I’m not a huge sushi fan, don’t @ me. For this challenge, the competitors were asked to put their own spin on kaiseki. This signature dish is actually made up of a few smaller courses where presentation is key. I think would I would fail embarrassingly at this challenge for the simple fact that a) I was not familiar with the meal to begin with, and b) my aesthetic for food is really just make it look edible.
17 Cassava, Brazil
I will be honest and admit that I was not familiar with cassava before this episode, so that would be my first hindrance in this challenge. Cassava is a root vegetable similar to yucca or distantly to the sweet potato. Knowing me I would likely dice it up, add a bunch of delicious herbs and spices and roast them. Not super creative, I know. I also read that if prepared incorrectly, eating cassava can have some pretty hefty medical repercussions. Better to overcook it in this situation then end up on the floor is how I’m going to justify my lack on talent for this challenge.
16 Cooking In Front Of An Audience
Okay, so this is obviously not an ingredient or dish, but this is a major challenge. Cooking a Michelin star-worthy dish in front of a live audience, in an hour? That is horrifying. I spend half that time standing in front of the pantry choosing ingredients. I also chop extremely slow out of fear of severing a limb. Plus, you’ve got these talented judges standing around you, testing your sauces and what not. Tack on some cameras in your face, and it’s just an overall daunting experience for those who tend to shy away from the spotlight.
15 Peas, United Kingdom
The humble pea. You would think this would be easy, but the hard part would be finding a way to make it the star of your dish. This ingredient is normally just an add-on so elevating it is really the challenge. I don’t know how original I would be with this ingredient; I think I’d go the soup route because who doesn’t love a good split pea soup? You could maybe make a salad of it with loads of other veggies too. I’m racking my brain trying to find a recipe, imagine if I had to think on my toes in front of a live audience in an hour. Eeesh.
14 Prickly Pear, Mexico
Prickly pear is more than just a cute nickname for your fussy friend; it’s also an extremely tasty but complex fruit. In terms of this challenge, the hardest bit is figuring out how to transform it from its original form without actually losing too much of its essence. You could do a fruity dessert maybe, distilling the fruit into a compote or something....now I’m just naming things I’ve heard on the Food Network. Maybe you could find a way to make a fancy juice out of it, or an ice cream. I know I’ve definitely seen that on Chopped before. Don't ask me how to actually do it though.
13 Octopus, Spain
Grilled octopus is delicious. I’ve eaten in a million times, but I would have no clue how to prepare it. Also, the tiny suction cups freak me out on a visceral level so I try and steer clear from that part in general. Thankfully a good octopus dish doesn’t require too many additional ingredients since the meat itself can stand on its own. Where you’ll need to excel, however, is in the technical aspects of handling the ingredient. Unfortunately for me, my technical skills (ie: knife handling, etc) leave much to be desired.
12 Pumpkin, USA
I think I would struggle with this challenge due to the simple fact that I don’t really like the ingredient. Sure, I enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie once every fall, or maybe a soup, but aside from that, I find pumpkin-flavoured things (worst of all, lattes), to be kind of gross. Contrary to what many companies think, adding pumpkin flavour to everything is not the way to live your life. For this challenge, maybe I’d make some pumpkin cookies, but obviously adding tons of chocolate chips to mask the flavour. It’s not very haute cuisine, but it would have to do the trick.
11 Artichoke, Italy
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of artichokes. I’ll have it if they’re served at a dinner party, but I’m not sure I’d ever really go out of my way to include it in a meal, let alone make it the centerpiece of my dish. It’s always harder to cook with something you don’t really like; if your heart’s not in it then you can definitely taste that it wasn’t made with love. Also, Carlo Cracco, the judge from Italy who issued the challenge, would definitely make me crack under pressure with his disapproving demeanor and harsh criticism.
10 Feijoada, Brazil
Lots of countries have their own spin on the classic stew, and I think my familiarity with your old-fashioned stew would be my only tiny saving grace for this feijoada challenge. Before Final Table, I really didn’t know anything about the dish itself, so I think I’d struggle with how to stay true to its roots without compromising flavour. Most of the competitors seemed to almost flawlessly execute the dish, including a meaty element and a legume element, but I don’t think I would escape the final elimination challenge this time around.
9 Coconut, India
I think I have almost exclusively eaten coconut as part of a dessert. Or maybe as part of the crust on tasty coconut shrimp. But regardless, the coconut is such a diverse fruit and ingredient. If I were asked to make a dish with it, I would likely make a creamy coconut pie. My grandmother makes a ridiculously delicious version of it, and it never seemed too complicated to me. It probably wouldn’t win over experienced judges or get many points for creativity, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it would at least taste good!
8 Finale Signature Dish Challenge
To a chef in a cooking competition, having free reign on what you can make for the finale may sound like a blessing. You can prepare and serve the dish you are most comfortable with and know that you are guaranteed to knock the judges’ socks off. For others, like yours truly, having too many options and too much liberty is a curse. I need direction, or at least some kind of semblance of direction. Like, just give me a main ingredient and I’ll roll with it. But to just let me do whatever I want? Madness I tell ya. Although, at least it would let me avoid dreaded sea urchins and cassavas.
7 Butter Chicken, India
Butter chicken is one of my favourite dishes. This hearty dish is amazing served over basmati rice and I am confident I could eat heaping after heaping of it if served to me. I think I would do well in this challenged based off of the fact that I crave it so often that I can identify most of its elements and spices and replicate it half decently if I had to. Chicken, butter, yogurt, coriander, cumin, and a few other delightful spices. Needless to say I think I could get away with presenting an edible plate of butter chicken.
6 Thanksgiving Dinner, United States
For this challenge, I would pay homage to the perfect leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich à la Ross Geller. For this I’d use a thick and delicious bread—might I suggest a mouthwatering brioche bun? The trickier part is making the turkey and stuffing in under an hour, but hopefully in this hypothetical challenge I’m competing in I would have a partner and they would help me out. Add in some shredded coleslaw with a sweet dressing, and man oh man, you’ve got heaven in a sandwich. Hopefully it would earn me a spot in the next round and praise from guest judge Dax Shepard.
5 Egg, France
This challenge was essentially to take eggs, but make it fashion. Eggs are the backbone of so many meals and almost all desserts so the possibilities for this challenge are endless. An omelette wouldn’t fill up the allotted hour for the challenge, so the main thing in my eggy repertoire would have to be ruled out. I still think I could do well in this challenge, I would just have to put the ole thinking cap on to come up with an elevated breakfast. Perhaps a delicious breakfast of eggs Benedict over unctuous pulled pork? Making myself hungry just thinking about it.
4 Tacos, Mexico
Who doesn’t love a taco? Seriously, tell me who, because I’d like a word with them. The taco is universally loved and so versatile that you can really have fun with creating your own rendition of Mexico’s signature dish. My favourite is the carnitas taco, topped with guacamole, queso fresco and a bunch of salsa so this would be my go-to in this competition. Simple, and delicious, but why mess with a classic? Or maybe go with a yummy fish taco, which is criminally underrated. If you want to modernize it, a taco bowl with black beans and rice is a sure-fire way to get you to the next round.
3 Full Breakfast, United Kingdom
England is not really the first country that comes to mind when you think haute cuisine, but they are pretty synonymous with breakfast. If you’re in the mood to go over the top for the first meal of the day, the full breakfast is the way to go. The dish is a fry up, so you’ll need a meaty element like sausage or blood pudding, eggs, beans and toast. I’d maybe include some kind of fruit or veggie to brighten up the dish and add some freshness, and then serve it all up in a traditional cast iron skillet. I got this.
2 Pasta, Italy
I am by no means a very skilled cook, but I know my way around some pasta (I hope). Honestly, you need to be trying extra hard to mess up a pasta dish—the trouble for this challenge would lie more in making it creative. I would probably make some kind of pesto concoction with my favourite noodle, fusilli, and maybe toss in some chicken, sprinkle an overzealous amount of parmesan on top, and hopefully add another element on the spur of the moment to earn extra brownie points and earn a spot in the finale. Truffle? Gold leaf? Crickets? Who knows.
1 Paella, Spain
My national pride is at stake with this one so my gastronomic knowledge of Spain better not betray me. I’ve never actually made a paella on my own, but I’ve watched my mom and grandmothers enough times to get the jist of it. It’s honestly not that complicated to make; prepping your ingredients is really what takes a bit longer. You can go the Valencia route and make it with rabbit and chicken; you can go strictly seafood, or my favourite, the “mixta” for when you can’t make up your mind. I’m really hoping I would nail this challenge, or else I’ll have a whole chorus of relatives never letting me live it down.