Since its release just a few years ago, Jiro Dreams of Sushi has already become something of a food-movie classic, not only for its impressive ability to capture what makes sushi so fascinating, but because filmmaker David Gelb shared the human-interest story of someone with a passion — who just happened to be a chef. That, in Gelb’s opinion, is how the best food television shows handle their subjects, and the filmmaker’s new Netflix series, Chef’s Table, follows suit.
In six individual hour-long documentaries, each devoted to one chef, Gelb offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Ben Shewry (Attica in Melbourne), Magnus Nilsson (Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden), Francis Mallmann (Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires), Niki Nakayama (N/Naka in Los Angeles,), Dan Barber (Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York), and Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy). Grub sat down with Gelb to discuss the show, which premieres on April 26.
Will Chef’s Table resemble Jiro Dreams of Sushi?
It’s sort of an expansion of Jiro: It’s very character-driven, and it’s about chefs who are forging their own paths, creating their own types of cuisine, and defying the normal expectations. For example, Massimo Bottura in Modena — before his restaurant had three Michelin stars, and became the third-best restaurant in the world — he was despised by the locals because he was messing with old recipes. Modena is a very traditional kind of place, so he was bold in defying those traditions, and he came out victorious. Now, he’s a celebrated figure in Italy, and so we looked for stories kind of like that about chefs who kind of took the hard route by choosing to follow their vision.
Did making Jiro help you get access to these chefs? How did you convince them to take part?
Oh, absolutely. Chefs are so obsessed with their work that they don’t necessarily have the time to have their kitchens invaded by myself and my crew, so there was certainly a degree of wooing involved. Having made Jiro Dreams of Sushi helped because it showed them what kind of film we were making — that this isn’t your normal kind of food reality show, or a travel show. These are serious documentary films that are really portraits of artists and their journeys.
What is your shooting process like?
Each shoot is about 10 to 12 days: We don’t have a host, we don’t have a formula, and we don’t say, “Pack up your knives and go.” The burden is really on the filmmaker to engage the audience right from the beginning. Any of these episodes can be watched individually. It’s challenging to make a documentary when you don’t have those kinds of structural crutches, like a competition or a host, but we made it work.
What through lines did you start to notice about your subjects? Did anything particularly surprise you about their lifestyles?
One of the things that surprised me was how similar a lot of them actually are, in terms of obsession, passion, and stubbornness. That’s true of a lot of artists — that they really have to believe in what they’re doing and shake off criticism and the naysayers. I was pleased, thematically, by the amount of similarities, even though their stories and types of food are completely different. Having worked in a small kitchen at Jiro’s, where there are 3 other chefs in the restaurant, it was interesting to capture Massimo and his 30 chefs. [The restaurant] has more staffers than it has customers. That’s interesting because that’s not how you make money, but making money is not a concern. They just want to make ends meet so they can continue to do their thing. I think that’s really cool.
In general, what do you think about the state of food television these days? How do you want your show to be different from what’s already out there?
There is some good television that I like a lot — particularly, I like Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, because I love how he’s funny and entertaining to watch, but it’s always about the people. He takes you to these places and you get to know the characters, and for me, I’m really interested in characters.
… What my show does that’s a little bit different from other shows is we don’t have a host. The stories are being told by the chefs themselves, and the people that know them: food intellectuals or critics that are close to them. As the filmmakers, we’re just translating their experiences. I’m grateful to the chefs for opening themselves up, because making a documentary film isn’t easy, and nobody gets voted off. So how do we keep it exciting and gripping? The trick is, we just follow the stories. It’s a combination of the origin stories of these chefs — where they came from and what they’re doing now — and it’s all about trying to find the “why?” It’s very much a character study and a portrait of an artist.
Yes, from what I’ve watched, there seems to be a sense of intimacy and stillness. In many food shows, it’s just sensory overload.
Yeah, it’s because those shows are competing. If the audience changes the channel, they’ve lost viewers. I think that Netflix provides an environment where someone can click on something different with no consequence: It doesn’t cost $4 to rent something, because you’re a subscriber already. You can click on it, you can watch as much as you want, and Netflix doesn’t have to pander. We have a lot respect for the audience.
… We certainly have our share of food porn, but what we try to do is make the food porn emotional, and instill it with the context of the character. For example if you look at Jiro, you have the story about how Nakazawa had attempted to make the egg sushi 200 times, and then he finally got it right. At the moment, when you see the beautiful egg sushi landing on the table, you have an emotional connection. So it’s more than just porn — it’s feelings. Feeling porn. Emotional food porn!
When Jiro came out, it suddenly became this Western goal to make the pilgrimage there. Are these restaurants ready for that kind of international fame?
These restaurants are all very popular already in their regions, and they’re really famous within foodie circles, but there are a lot of people who still don’t know about them. The downside to making a film about a restaurant is that it’s going to increase the popularity, so it’s going to be even harder to get into. I want lines around the block for all of of these chefs, because they deserve it, and I want them to be able to continue to take risks and know that the customers are going to keep coming.
Some of these chefs have been written and talked about extensively. How did you find a new way into their stories?
Right, right. For example, with Dan Barber, there’s been lots of stuff on him. He does TED Talks, and he’s a very famous guy, but we were excited to go in and tell his origin story, and try to figure out exactly what drives him. Why does he — when he could easily make delicious food a lot more easily than he does — have this whole ethos about the farm-to-table, slow-food movement? It’s all about how he feels, and then that makes the food delicious. When there’s a sustainable ecosystem, it makes the meal taste better.
… One thing we’re also really interested in is the balance between work and family. Different chefs have different takes on it, and, we found, in order to create great art, you need to be in a place where you can enjoy life. A lot of these chefs work themselves into a hole, and have to claw themselves back up. They aren’t really grateful for what they have around them, so we look at the family stories of the chefs. The hours are crazy — opening a restaurant is one of the riskiest things you can do. These chefs are all taking extraordinary risks, and they’re not in it for the money. Their passion fascinates me.