For the Netflix series Chef's Table, filmmaker David Gelb followed six chefs from around the world. The chefs, who include Massimo Bottura, Niki Nakayama and Francis Mallmann, have "courage, relentlessness and a purity of vision that they refuse to compromise," Gelb says. He was previously the director of the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
Francis Lam: Chef's Table is a beautiful show. The food looks gorgeous, of course, but the stories are so rich. As I was watching it, I kept thinking, "Is this a show about chefs? Or is it a show about drive? Or is it a show about creativity? Or is it a show about sacrifice?" What, to you, is this show about?
David Gelb: I think it's about all of those things. It's very much a character-driven series, where each episode is about a character who is obsessed. They're all completely obsessed with what they do. There are artists in all different types of fields that do this, so it certainly isn't exclusive to being a chef. But to be a chef and to be a great chef, you must be obsessed.
It's one of the hardest professions: to own a restaurant and to be a chef. Most of our chefs are owners of the restaurant as well. You're running a business that has to perform on point every single evening.
As a filmmaker, I get to make something once. Then you can just play it, and it's the same every time you play it. But for a chef, it's a lot more like performing on a stage, because every single night you have to be at that level of excellence. You never know when the food critic is going to come or when the journalists are going to be there. One off night can be a catastrophe.
I'm just so impressed by the drive of these chefs. People have been telling them, "No, it's impossible" their entire lives. They all have fought through that. I just think it's incredibly inspiring.
FL: How did you select the chefs you wanted to profile?
DG: We're looking for people who have forged their own pathway and created their own version of their cuisine.
Massimo Bottura is now on the S. Pellegrino 50 best list; the No. 3 restaurant in the world is Osteria Francescana. He has three Michelin stars and is world-renowned. But when he started, he was considered to be a bit of a food heretic in Italy -- especially in Modena, where he's from. There's a very strong gastronomic tradition there. You're really not supposed to mess with Grandma's recipes. That's what they all say. He was determined to reinvent that cuisine.
That's very similar to what Niki Nakayama does in Los Angeles with her version of kaiseki. It's very similar to what Francis Mallmann does; he works always with fire and outdoor environments, making that his own.
We're really looking for chefs who are defying the conventions and being really brave. That kind of courage is something that we're really looking for in our characters: courage, relentlessness and a purity of vision that they refuse to compromise.
FL: That comes through so much when you watch these films.
When you bring up Massimo, I also think of Lara [Gilmore], his wife. In many ways she has been his creative collaborator. She has this really striking moment where she says, "When I married Massimo, I married his restaurant."
The chef's personal vision makes everyone else around the chef have to make personal sacrifices of their own. That's a really interesting tension. As a filmmaker, are you drawn to that tension as part of the character? Does that undermine the story you're trying to tell?
DG: Not at all. I think that one of the themes that we consistently explore is the cost of greatness or the cost of wanting to be great. There's always a cost.
It's something that's very interesting to me as a filmmaker. I think it's interesting to anyone who has a creative job. There is an urge to stay in the office and not come home at night because you have this relentless desire to be the best. You have this drive. You don't want to leave it. I have trouble leaving the editing room just as many of these chefs have trouble leaving the kitchen.
We love to explore that because at its heart, this show isn't so much about what they're cooking or what their technique is, but it's really about the why. We're trying to figure out where the drive comes from. Why do they do it?
In many cases, they're doing it for their families -- that's the great contradiction. They're doing it for their family, but at the same time, it removes them from their family in certain ways.
FL: What draws you to making movies about food as well as the chefs? Is there something about capturing the food scenes that is really interesting or inspiring to you?
DG: I love to eat. That comes from my parents.
My mom, Donna Gelb, is a recipe chef. She's worked on two of the books of Francis Mallmann, who's featured in our series. She was very much an inspiration for me. We would always eat well. When my parents used to be together, we would travel. My mom would always take me to the best restaurants even though I was a little kid. She's always been testing recipes at home for various magazines or cookbooks. I think this love for food comes from my childhood.
Shooting the food scenes is always a lot of fun because the plate itself is already a work of art. Then we're trying to find the best way to capture the essence of that. The crew gets to dig in, because we wouldn't want to let the plate go to waste. That's one of the most fun parts of the shoot; the crew loves that part.
Chef Niki Nakayama's dish Tsukuri Traditional Sashimi (Photo: Photo Courtesy of Netflix)
FL: These food scenes are so melodic and so beautiful. They're set to music as well. When you shoot them, are they choreographed or are they just documented? How do you actually capture them?
DG: In "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," there's a scene that we refer to as "the sushi concerto." That's the scene where Yamamoto-san, who serves as a narrator of sorts for the film, walks you through what Jiro-san's omakase course is like. He describes it as a symphony with three acts to it, which I thought was a beautiful description.
We carried that over. In each of our shoots, we would have what we called a "food symphony," where the kitchen would essentially work for us for a little bit before service would start. We would set up our lighting to make sure that the food would look beautiful. We have a robotic camera that can do very specific choreographed camera moves. It's a lot of fun to shoot them because it's like, "How do I draw the audience's eye into what I'm seeing when I'm sitting here and eating this?"
Before we do a shoot, we always have a meal at the restaurant so we can experience the food. Then we think about ways that we can transport the audience's perspective into what we have just experienced. We're always trying to share what we're discovering while we're shooting.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.