We talked with “Chef’s Table” creator David Gelb about his acclaimed Netflix documentary series, his cooking skills – and why chefs are the superheroes of our time.
I’m assuming that you don’t only have a passion for filmmaking but also for food. Can you tell me something about your personal relation with food?
I’ve been obsessed with food for as long as I can remember. My parents both love to eat. My mother is a recipe chef, so she works with chefs to convert their recipes into things that should be included in their cookbook.
Do you have memories of your first major food crush?
I travelled to Japan with my parents when I was two years old and again when I was four, and became obsessed with cucumber rolls. My parents wouldn’t let me eat the fish because I was very young, I guess they thought it wasn’t safe for me, but I became obsessed with Japanese flavors at a very young age. When I came back to New York from these trips I would always tell my friends about to the different foods I had. So, I’ve always liked eating things and sharing the stories about it with people.
Are you a good cook?
I love to cook. I’m a much better eater than I am a chef, but I have a big library of cookbooks and my mother has taught me a big deal. Plus, I get to spend a lot of my time in the kitchen with chefs and so I watch what they do and I try to apply it in the cooking at home. Their style of cooking is mostly all about products that they’re able to get. It’s about the produce and the beef, and how to use your techniques to bring out the soul of these ingredients.
Do you have a dish that always gets the people raving?
I love to barbeque and there’s a very simple dish that I love to cook. It’s inspired by Alain Passard, who we did an episode with at our “Chef’s Table: France” spin-off. You need an excellent eggplant for this one. Then you take the raw eggplant, place it directly on the coals of the barbeque and just let it burn, you burn the outside of the eggplant almost completely. Then after a while, you crack it open, scoop out the delicious eggplant guts, which are now all soft and kind of smokey-flavoured, and just add a little bit of oil, sea salt and perhaps some parmigiano-reggiano. It’s a very simple dish, but it’s absolutely delicious.
“The cliché of the angry chef is a bit overstated”
“Chef’s Table” revolves around food, but perhaps even more about the person behind the chef. What makes them the perfect protagonists?
Chefs are fascinating to me. They’re so different. Yes, they’re flamboyant, they’re bombastic, but mostly, they’re great storytellers. They tell the stories of their food and in doing so, they tell the stories of their lives. They live a very high stress, high intensity existence. And they risk so much! The risk of owning a restaurant is so great, there’s so many safer ways to make money or to make a living than being a chef. Me, I make the film once and then it exists exactly the same way, forever. In the case of the chef, they have to recreate and reproduce the same performance every single night, and if you have one bad night, it can destroy your career.
In your experience so far, which common clichés about chefs proved to be very much true, which ones not at all?
To be honest, I think a lot of the clichés – the angry chef – are a bit overstated. In some cases, it’s true. Like, you look at Tim Raue, he’s a tough guy. People have been working with him for years, though. They have a relationship, they understand how to take his way of communicating and they get used to it. But I found that for the most part, the chefs and their staff, they’re really like a family, in a lot of ways. Chefs like Massimo Bottura and Gaggan (Annand), and many of the others, they provide housing for them, they’re very much like teachers. I think we don’t see chefs as teachers enough in the fictional portrayals of them.
And why is that?
It’s obviously more entertaining to watch them when they’re crazy! When you look at films like “Chefs” or “Burnt” with Bradley Cooper, there’s a lot of conflict and drama. The truth is: chefs are very thoughtful people. If the chef is a real asshole, the work is not going to be as good, the cooking is not going to be as good. Also, chefs are incredibly generous. They choose to spend their life serving. They want to make people happy.
“Our show is not about how to cook, it’s about why to cook”
How would you categorize “Chef’s Table”? As food porn? High art? Travel documentary?
If you’re looking at it strictly in storytelling terms: these are superhero stories. Each take is the story about a uniquely talented person who has the ability to feed the world and to make things that no one else can do and then try to find their place in this world. And often time, much like the superheroes, people are telling them: ‘no, you can’t do it your way, you don’t belong here’. And they’ll also make mistakes that will then inform how they should use their powers. In the case of Massimo Bottura, they told him: ‘don’t mess with grandma’s recipes, you can’t change these things’, but he refused to take no for an answer. And now he’s considered by many the greatest chef in the world.
Classical music plays an important role in “Chef’s Table”. Do you feel like it’s the best means to translate the magic of taste and smell onto screen?
We’re using all the tools of cinema to draw the audience into the experience of the food, which is really just visuals and sounds. And the heart. The heart is actually the most important ingredient of this. What I mean by heart is the emotional context of the chef’s feel, the part of their personal journey that is translated into the food. Our stories are about people, and we only feature the dishes that have emotional resonance with our chefs. And so our show is not about how to cook, it’s about why to cook.
Is that how you came up with the idea for “Chef’s Table” in the first place?
The idea came to me when I went to film school. At the time, I was really into the BBC documentary series “Planet Earth” and always thinking how they made planet earth look so beautiful. One day it hit me: ‘I should do that with food!’ The result was “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“ in 2011, my first film and the template for “Chef’s Table”. And since you just mentioned the issue of smell and taste: there’s a scene in that film where one of our apprentices is making the egg sushi. He has to make it 200 times before he gets it right. And when finally gets it right he says he wants to cry. So when the egg sushi lands on the plate in the film it means so much more than what it tastes or smells like. It has an emotional resonance.
What are your thoughts on European cuisine?
There’s so much I love about Europe! In terms of eating, I’m crazy for classic French cuisine. One of my favorite meals that I had in France was at the Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon. I love the elegance of it and I love the beauty of the French countryside. I was recently visiting Spain and I’m obsessed with Iberico Ham, and I love all their jamón and I love tapas. I love the Basque region. And I also love Italy. I have a very strong place in my heart for Italy, because I’m obsessed with Pasta. I’ve always loved Noodles since I was young, since I went with my parents to Japan. I love pasta, I love Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I think that’s the big influence Massimo Bottura had on me. But I also love a Currywurst from the streets of Berlin. So … I love everything from fine dining to street foods.
Season 3 of “Chef’s Table” just aired on Netflix. What’s in the cards for the near future?
What I can say is that we are working on future seasons of “Chef’s Table”. But I can’t give any more details at this point. I can assure you, though: there’s still a great many chefs with great stories out there who are doing completely different things in different parts of the world.
--Images: © Netflix, © Netflix/Capital Pictures