Chef’s Table creator David Gelb says the show has become “therapy” for featured chefs

David Gelb takes his camera crew around the world to tell the stories of the best chefs in his acclaimed series.
David Gelb takes his camera crew around the world to tell the stories of the best chefs in his acclaimed series.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Director David Gelb says his documentary series Chef's Table is about creative people who inspire by doing the impossible


In the eyes of viewers, the Chef's Table series from Netflix is all about gorgeous food shots and heartwarming stories of celebrated chefs.

But what do the chefs themselves see when they watch themselves on the award-winning documentary series?

"It becomes a therapy session for them," says series creator and director David Gelb, 32, in a recent telephone interview with The Straits Times from Los Angeles.

"The chefs give us free range in however we want to tell the story, and we hold nothing back in the show. Sometimes we expose a side to them that they were not aware of before."

For instance, American chef Dan Barber, who owns the acclaimed Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barnes in New York City, was rather taken aback when he caught his own episode.

On the show, which is available on streaming service Netflix, he comes across as passionate and inventive, but also brash and rude as he spews curse words at the kitchen staff.

Gelb says: "Dan was really surprised when he watched himself. He didn't realise he was behaving that way. He now thinks it's because he's suppressed - being a chef is hard work, and he had a rough childhood. He has come around to it and really shown support for the show, though."

Gelb, who also directed the acclaimed documentary film Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011) about legendary sushi master Jiro Ono, says that Chef's Table is "set in the world of food, but about people".

The series also features top chefs such as Gaggan Anand, owner of Bangkok's progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan, as well as Massimo Bottura, owner of Italy's Osteria Francescana, which took the No. 1 spot on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list last month.

Each 50-minute episode in the two-season show delves into the life of one chef, looking at the way he works in his restaurants as well as his personal life.

Currently in production for a third and fourth season, the show won the International Documentary Association Award last year for Best Episodic Series.

Critics have praised the show, with The Wall Street Journal comparing the experience of watching the series to "touring an art museum", due to its "crystalline cinematography" and the "enchanting" stories behind each chef.

Gelb says: "I think the greatest compliment is knowing that someone who normally wouldn't enjoy fine food can still find value in these stories.

"They are about chefs and the inspiring lessons that they give are ones that anyone can learn from."

1 How do you select the chefs to be profiled for the show?

We do a lot of research about the chefs, reading newspapers and magazine articles about them from all around the world. We're looking at creative people with strong personal visions and characters who want to do the impossible and fight for it.

We also look for various settings - a good combination of different backgrounds and countries.

There is no host on this show, so the chefs' stories have to be exciting enough to move things along on their own.

2 Do you have a narrative mapped out beforehand, or do you find it while filming?

We have a general idea, but once we get on the ground and work with the chefs, new ideas start to come up. We're always as prepared as we possibly can, but have the flexibility to adjust to whatever that goes on. It's exciting filming documentaries because things always change.

3 Are you inundated with requests from chefs to be featured?

(Laughs) Well, yes, we've been getting a lot of publicists reaching out to us about wanting to be part of the show. It's sad that we can't feature them all. There are so many great stories out there waiting to be told. But this is a great compliment and I'm very grateful for that.

4 Do you get to eat the food that you film?

(Laughs) Yes, we do get to eat very well when we're filming - it's a perk of the job. But the poor film editors, they don't go on the shoots with us, but have to edit the footage later. So while they're working, they're experiencing what viewers experience, which is hunger.

5 Some viewers have said that the female chefs on the show are token females because they are less accomplished than the male chefs featured. What do you think?

I think that's very unfair on the female chefs that we have featured, because they're extraordinary cooks. But the fact is that there are just many more famous male than female chefs. But in the future, that will change. Many of the sous chefs for the top chefs now are female, and in the future, they will have their own amazing restaurants. I can't wait for that to happen.

6 The upcoming third season of the show will feature all French chefs. Why is that?

France is such an important place when it comes to food. The French created many of the techniques used in kitchens all around the world. If you're into food, you would have to go to France at some point. We hadn't featured a French chef yet and we really couldn't just pick one. So we decided to do an entire season on French chefs.

7 Your father Peter Gelb is the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and your mother Donna Daniels Gelb writes recipes for cookbooks. Can you talk about the influences that they have had on your work?

My mum had fed me very well since I was very young, taking me to great restaurants. My dad introduced me to classical music since I was in a stroller, and both my parents have taken me on travels around the world. So I would say that there are definitely elements of both my parents in my work - the classical music scores of my films and, of course, my love for food.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I guess I want to be remembered for having put good work out in the world, and for inspiring people to be the best versions of themselves.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Chef's Table Seasons 1 and 2 are now showing on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Telling stories of top chefs'. Print Edition | Subscribe