Fall 2018


Cuisine Art

For the lushly produced Chef's Table, the directors orchestrate a 'food symphony' of sights, sounds and psychology that sets it apart from kitchen competition shows


Chef Jeong Kwan and director David Gelb from Season 3 of Chef's Table (Photo: Se Young Oh/Netflix)

When David Gelb, the creator of Netflix's food-obsessed docu-series Chef's Table, and his directing team began strategizing their first season, which aired in 2015, they hit upon an untraditional route: no pilot, just an agreed-upon game plan. Instead of shooting a tone-establishing first episode, the four created a list of rules so the six episodes would feel connected to each other without actually having a mandated format.

Gelb and fellow directors Andrew Fried, Brian McGinn and Clay Jeter determined that each roughly 50-minute documentary on a famous chef must include moments involving the sourcing and preparation of food, as well as traditional origin-story interviews involving both the main subject, as well as secondary subjects to enrich the personal portrait of the chef.

Storytelling devices such as flashbacks or recreations were banished. They came up with one of the series' defining aesthetic touches: an entire day is devoted to what's now referred to as "the food symphony," where they shoot bright, almost dazzlingly pristine footage of the chef's signature dishes.

They talked about visual language references—everything from the shallow depth of field in Errol Morris' interviews with former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara for that director's 2003 documentary The Fog of War; the street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson; and what they could learn from watching ads. "We looked at a lot of motion-controlled food photography in traditional TV commercial food photography," says McGinn. "We thought that we could adapt from that; we could make [food] feel more natural and more cinematic instead of purely strawberries dropping into water."

The four directors weren't working entirely from scratch. In many ways, Chef's Table is a small-screen extension of Gelb's 2011 feature documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Tokyo's legendary sushi craftsman Jiro Ono. Because of his Jiro experience, Gelb was already aware of some of the obstacles when shooting in a busy professional kitchen—cramped, often chaotic spaces crowded with cooks in motion, scorchingly hot stoves, and the wielding of sharp knives.

The director also spends extra time just standing in the kitchen, studying the kitchen staffs' flight patterns as closely as a scientist observing bird migrations.

"We have to kind of watch the movement and figure out where our safe places are," says Gelb about who in their stripped-down crew—director, producer, cinematographer, sound recordist/mixer, 1st camera assistant, 2nd camera assistant, grip, gaffer and, if needed, a translator—can fit into a confined space. "Some kitchens are big and there's plenty of room to operate," adds Gelb. "Some of them are so small that the focus puller is just around the corner outside the kitchen, everything's wireless, and we're hiding microphones throughout the kitchen in very tight situations."

It was the 1992 narrative-free, multi-continent documentary Baraka that made Gelb and the other directors realize that they shouldn't let a lack of space stop them from designing special camera moves. "I remember watching [Baraka] and seeing these incredible motion control shots in extremely exotic, hard-to-access places," says Gelb, whose question about how to do tracking shots in confined quarters was answered in a motioncontrol rig with carbon fiber tracks made by camBLOCK that's so portable, it folds up into a big duffel bag. "It's not super-heavy, and you control it with a tablet," he says. "So all of our ACs and cinematographers know how to use it. On Chef's Table we're fortunate to be in the right place at the right time technologically. So between the camBLOCK, the RED camera itself"—with each season they've used the latest iteration—"you don't need a film loader to be able to shoot beautiful, movie theater-quality footage."

The elegant, meditative look is what separates Chef's Table from other food-centric shows. Much of that harks back to a decision made in that pre-first season meeting when it was decided to leave behind a documentary filmmaker's favorite tool—the zoom lens—and shoot the series using only Prime lenses. "Prime lenses aren't very convenient because you're not able to change your shot size without just getting closer to the subject or away from it," says Gelb. "But we wanted to try to keep the most beautiful, high-end look for the show, really make it look like a movie."

Chef Vladimir Mukhin does his thing in Episode 16 of Chef's Table, whose elegant, meditative look sets it apart from other food-centric shows. (Photo: Roman Suslov/Netflix)

Fried adds that the choice to go with Prime lenses required them to find the nimblest of focus pullers, the tireless kind who can ply their skill anywhere. "The true heroes of this show are the ACs," he says. "They're pulling focus on boats, on jungles and hot kitchens, just staring at their monitors pulling focus for hours and hours on end. Then the second AC is carrying a full set of Prime lenses and swapping out lenses quickly."

The no-zoom policy also means that the directors have to find new ways to inject spontaneity into their footage, says Fried, who credits some of the most naturalistic passages in his episode on Los Angeles chef Niki Nakayama to the choice made by him and his cinematographer, Adam Bricker, to put the camera on sticks in the kitchen of her modern Japanese kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, then exit the room. "It was out of frustration," says Fried, who let the camera roll unattended in front of Nakayama and her sous chef/wife Carol Iida-Nakayama for up to 30 minutes at a time. "I was used to more vérité shooters with a zoom lens and just covering a scene on a lighter-weight camera. We only shoot single camera. Those just weren't the tools that we had at our disposal."

Prior to each new season—Netflix recently announced that Season 5 will premiere Sept. 28—they've added directors to pore over the roster of subjects, including Abigail Fuller and Jimmy Goldblum. "There's almost a component of it that's like a Fantasy Football draft; everyone gets to call out the name of the chef they want," says Fried, who is drawn to female chefs like Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn and pastry chef Christina Tosi. Jeter's penchant is for Hemingwayesque types like acclaimed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who lives on a private island in Patagonia and whose name is synonymous with roaring bonfires, primitive grilling contraptions and huge slabs of meat.

Most Chef's Table episodes are culled from footage shot in 12-hour sessions over the course of roughly 10 weeks. ("We cast a very wide net," says Gelb.) Because part of the Chef's Table brand is a life story told with refreshing honesty, the director—who also doubles as interviewer—is expected, prior to day one of shooting, to have already gotten to know the chef-subject by way of Skype, phone calls or over emails. One of the director and DP's most anticipated research trips require eating a couple of full meals at the chef's restaurant. "So much of our show is based on the bond between the chef and the director," says Gelb, whose approach is to schedule the first of two lengthy interviews for the beginning of the shoot, establish a baseline for the story he wants to tell, then bring in the story producer, asking, "What are the points we mean to hit? Do we have that all? What else do we need?"

Gelb jokes that if there was ever a Chef's Table drinking game, chugging would occur whenever a chef stares wistfully into a fire or takes a walk in a garden. "You'll see moments like these a lot in our episodes because they just work," he says, with a laugh. But, in truth, when Chef's Table is at its best, it offers those small moments that add up to a living, breathing human being.

"We examine these chefs in ways that they might not have examined themselves," says Fried, recalling how when he was in Paris shooting an episode on starred chef Adeline Grattard, her rare stretches of stillness usually occurred during cigarette breaks outside of her restaurant, Yam'Tcha.

"It was very honest, very Adeline, very French," says Fried, adding that a year and a half after the episode aired, he had dinner with Grattard. "She said the only thing she didn't like about her show was how much she smoked. I said, 'I'm so sorry,' and she said, 'No, no. Since I saw your episode, I quit smoking. And since I quit smoking, we decided to have another baby.'

"Sometimes the impact that these shows have is not just on the restaurant or on the business but on real lives."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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