Food For Thought

‘Chef’s Ta­ble’ of­fers more than pretty plates

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - WHAT'S UP - JO­CE­LYN MUR­PHY NWA Demo­crat-Gazette

Each plate of food tells a story. In its use of in­gre­di­ents or in its prepa­ra­tion meth­ods, it can be a story of the re­gion it came from. It can make con­nec­tions to art or his­tory or emo­tions. And food can tell the story of the per­son who made it, as it does in the Net­flix doc­u­men­tary series “Chef’s Ta­ble.”

The food is “sort of the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of their story. [The show] is por­traits of artists, and the art is a re­flec­tion of their lives,” shares di­rec­tor David Gelb. “These dishes rep­re­sent break­throughs or per­sonal things they’re try­ing to ex­press, be­cause the chefs are sto­ry­tellers. They use the food to tell the story.”

Gelb and series co-cre­ator Brian McGinn are sto­ry­tellers as well. When the two set out to cre­ate a show in­volv­ing food, they wanted to dis­tance them­selves from tra­di­tional food tele­vi­sion — a nar­ra­tor guid­ing the viewer through the creation process, food as the fo­cus. In­stead they sought char­ac­ters who had over­come tri­als and mis­takes, forged their own paths and cre­ated beau­ti­ful works of food that can be emo­tion­ally tied to those mo­ments in their lives.

An ex­am­ple of such emo­tion is per­fectly demon­strated in Gelb’s 2011 doc­u­men­tary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which served as the in­spi­ra­tion for the nar­ra­tive style of “Chef’s Ta­ble.” In the film, Gelb shares, one of Jiro’s ap­pren­tices works at the restau­rant for years be­fore he’s al­lowed to make the egg sushi. When he is fi­nally able to at­tempt it, he makes more than 200 per­mu­ta­tions be­fore Jiro finds his work ac­cept­able. Though the ap­pren­tice has tears in his eyes and feels com­pelled to fist-pump the air in his joy, he must re­main sub­dued as is ap­pro­pri­ate in a tra­di­tional Ja­panese kitchen.

“So any dish that we fea­ture on the show has some sort of emo­tional con­text in the story of the chef,” Gelb ex­plains. “And then the piece of egg sushi lands on the ta­ble in this big closeup, and the goal is for you to feel the emo­tional con­text of that piece of sushi, even though you don’t re­ally know what it tastes like. But you know what it means. And it’s about the mean­ing, I think. That’s where we com­pen­sate for the lack of taste and smell.”

“I think we’re all taught that you have to fol­low rules,” McGinn adds. “And es­pe­cially com­ing up in a cre­ative field, you’re held ac­count­able for what rules you break and what rules you ad­here to — you’re kind of re­warded for con­tin­u­ing the sta­tus quo as long as your qual­ity con­trol is high.

“I think one of the things we’ve learned from al­most ev­ery sin­gle per­son we’ve fea­tured on the show is that rules don’t re­ally ap­ply when you’re try­ing to cre­ate your own path. So the show has re­ally evolved out of the process of mak­ing it, and that has been so deeply af­fected by our re­la­tion­ships and learn­ing from the chefs that we’ve fea­tured.”

Those lessons McGinn and Gelb have taken from the chefs as well as the film­mak­ers’ own de­vel­op­ment over the evo­lu­tion of the show are two sub­jects the men will dis­cuss dur­ing their lec­ture tonight at Crys­tal Bridges. As part of the Dis­tin­guished Speaker Series, McGinn and Gelb join a lineup of cre­atives whose cross-dis­ci­pline col­lab­o­ra­tions and in­no­va­tion and pas­sion for their re­spec­tive fields will chal­lenge per­cep­tions while en­cour­ag­ing guests to feel in­vig­o­rated to be bold in their own lives.

“All of us are rel­a­tively young cre­atives so mak­ing the show has been, in a lot of ways, kind of a process of self-dis­cov­ery as we learn from these peo­ple who have fig­ured out a way to make cre­ativ­ity a sus­tain­able ca­reer,” McGinn shares.

“That’s one of the things that’s been re­ally re­ward­ing and ex­cit­ing for us is tak­ing all of that wis­dom they’ve gained over their decades of work and be­ing the best in the world at what they do, and try­ing to ap­ply that to our own lives. So that’s the stuff we’re hop­ing to share as well — show­ing the wis­dom of the cre­ative process of some of the best chefs in the world. And I think that’s some­thing that comes through a lit­tle bit in the show, but it comes through even bet­ter in talk­ing about it.”


Direc­tors and cre­ators of the Emmy-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary series “Chef’s Ta­ble” David Gelb (top) and Brian McGinn will dis­cuss the evo­lu­tion of the show as well as cre­ative lessons they’ve learned along the way tonight at Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art as part of the Dis­tin­guished Speaker Series.

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