The documentaries go inside the kitchens of the world’s top culinary talents.

By Katie James
April 23, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Food lovers and Netflix aficionados will soon have another series to binge watch: Chef’s Table, a documentary series that follows the lives and careers of renowned chefs. Chef’s Table, which premieres on Sunday, April 26, delves into the lives of Ben Shewry (of Melbourne’s Attica Restaurant), Magnus Nilsson (of Sweden’s Fäviken), Francis Mallmann (of Buenos Aires’ El Restaurante Patagonia Sur), Niki Nakayama (of L.A.’s N/Naka Restaurant), Dan Barber (of New York’s Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns), and Massimo Bottura (of Italy’s Osteria Francescana).

David Gelb, the show’s creator and executive producer—also director of the critically acclaimed documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi—gives T+L a look inside his latest project.

How did the project get started?

Chef’s Table is the realization of a long-term vision that I’ve had for making what I would call the Planet Earth of food, and when I say that I’m referring to the BBC series, Planet Earth, which was really inspiring to me. Before I made Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is my feature documentary about the world’s greatest sushi chef, I wanted to make documentaries about food that treated the craft of filmmaking with the same kind of respect that Planet Earth did, with really cool music and sound design and cinematography—all these tools of cinema that aren’t necessarily used that much in non-fiction, and especially in food.

Do you watch a lot of food television?

I was watching a food travel show recently, and it felt like a reality show. The lens is always zooming in and out, and while it certainly can be entertaining, it doesn’t feel particularly artistic. What I wanted to do was to make a film about a chef where the storyteller is the chef himself, and then use all these beautiful cinematic tools to help draw the audience into their world, and to show what they’re doing from the chef’s perspective.

So at the end of the day, it’s all about the chefs?

Yes, it’s a series where each episode is its own documentary film, set with a different chef, shot in the style of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. They’re really portraits of artists. This isn’t a series where you watch and learn how to cook something. This is about the characters’ journeys through their lives and their work to get to the “Why.” Why are they so passionately obsessed with cooking? Opening a restaurant isn’t easy—it’s expensive, it takes a lot of work, and it’s incredibly risky. Most restaurants fail. Every night you have to maintain an incredibly high level of quality, because you never know when the food critic is going to walk in—one bad night can ruin your business. So I was always fascinated with why these chefs put themselves through that pressure and risk. But I also think that what they do is an art form, so these films—these portraits of artists—are about their journeys and their craft, told by the chefs, their loved ones, and the food writers or luminaries that know them well.

How did you select this group of chefs?

We wanted an eclectic mix, with all different styles of cooking and geographically varied. That said these are all chefs that have forged their own paths, and who cling to their vision relentlessly. For example, Massimo Bottura in Modena—Modena is a place in Italy that has a very strong, concrete culinary tradition. The rule is: Don’t mess with Grandma’s recipes. They made the recipe perfectly once, and you have to do exactly that. And Massimo, after having mastered his grandma’s recipes, decided that he would take it apart, turn it upside down, and put it back together again. One of the things that he says is that sometimes tradition doesn’t respect the ingredients, and so he really took a strong stand for his own creative vision, and was almost driven out of Modena because of it. The restaurant was empty, critics were giving him horrible reviews, and it was only after a few years that the international community took note, and saw that he was making food that was not only delicious, but that there were incredible ideas behind it. And now he’s a national hero in Italy.

Did you know going in what you wanted to say about each chef?

We did a lot of research, reading the chefs’ books and as many articles as we could to get a rough idea of what the story was that we want to tell. But you always discover things, and that’s one of the great things about making documentaries—you don’t have a script. You go in as prepared as you can, but our mantra is to always be loose enough to go with the flow when things change. So there are plenty of surprises—good surprises, exciting surprises.

Were there certain differences that you noticed among the chefs?
For sure; our chefs come from all different parts of the world. Their cuisines are incredibly different, and they’re in different places in their careers. Massimo Bottura, for example, is a three-starred-Michelin chef, ranked third in the world on the San Pellegrino guide of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and Niki Nakayama in Los Angeles is a rising star, who has yet to achieve those accolades, but who has the talent and the gumption to do it. And so we definitely wanted to have contrast between the stories, and we ordered the stories in that way.

But I’m guessing they’re similar in a lot of ways, too?

They’re all very conscious of their environments, and very concerned with using the best ingredients that are representative of where they are. Dan Barber, for instance, only sources from local farms on the East Coast, and he’s really trying to elevate the farm-to-table thing, making really delicious food with sustainable ingredients—even ingredients that people would normally throw away—and turn them into something that could be high cuisine. And Magnus Nilsson in Sweden: his restaurant is in a very remote place, so they go out hunting on the property and harvest ingredients. He even has this underground bunker that almost looks like a Hobbit hole, where he stores preserved vegetables and meats in the wintertime. He kind of has his own food ecosystem in the middle of nowhere. So they’re all very conscious of their location, and the context it provides is an incredibly important part of their cuisine.

Have you always been interested in food and travel?

Yeah, I’ve been traveling and eating well since I was a baby. My dad would travel a lot for work, and while he was in meetings, my mom would take me to the cool local spots in that city. I remember eating sushi at a department store when I was in a stroller. My mom is also a recipe chef; she writes and tests recipes for cookbooks and magazines. She actually wrote all the recipes for Francis Mallman’s book. She would shadow him and try to translate what he did, so you can replicate it in your own kitchen. And so I would help her while she was testing recipes and cooking at home. I have a foundation where food is really important to me, and as a filmmaker who loves food, this was the perfect intersection of those interests.

Do you travel a lot?

I travel a lot for work, because in documentaries you have to go to where the story is. So I traveled a bit for this series, which was awesome. I recently did a film on the Mustang, called A Faster Horse, which is premiering right now at the Tribeca Film Festival. So I traveled a lot to Detroit and to other places where the car was being released around the world. It’s a story about engineers creating a successor to a 15-year legend—how to live up to the pressures and expectations of that, with thousands of jobs in the balance and a billion dollars on the line. I love traveling and getting to immerse myself in the lives of different people. I get to see and do things that I wouldn’t normally ever be able to, and it’s awesome.

OK, last question—where are your favorite places to eat in L.A.?

My favorite ramen place is called Tsujita Artisan Noodle LA. They have a Tsukemen, which is a dish with thick ramen noodles that you dip in a broth; it’s amazing. There’s a great Shabu-shabu place, where you swish thinly sliced raw beef around in boiling water, and eat it with rice and vegetables and a sauce that’s super delicious. I’m kind of obsessed with Japanese food, I guess. There’s also incredible sushi in L.A.—I love Sushi Zo and Sushi Park. Jinpachi is also great. And then there are beautiful places to go hiking; you’re close to the beach and to the mountains. I try to go to skiing in Mammoth once or twice a year. L.A. is awesome, you just have to be O.K. with driving—and with traffic.

Katie James is an assistant editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @kjames259.