Food For Thought
‘Chef’s Table’ offers more than pretty plates
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.