After getting excited and inspiring with him documentary 'Jiro dreams of sushi', director David Gelb changed his face to the kitchen on television with 'Chef's table', a collection of portraits of great chefs (among them, Albert Adrià or Jordi Roca) in which the emotion matters more than the data and the dishes are filmed as if they were Hollywood stars. Further, Gelb is co-creator of 'Street food', Spin-off dedicated to the great chefs of small street stalls around the world. Both series are available on Netflix.
How did you get to the documentaries?
I started working on music videos and commercials, filming the making-of. I made a movie for a rock band, but it didn't get released. That's how I started in the documentary. I understood that it was a way of making movies that didn't require too much money or a great team. And that could be as attractive at the narrative level as conventional cinema.
His father's grandfather was Arthur Gelb, an influential figure in the 'New York Times', editorial director between 1986 and 1989. Never wanted to be a journalist?
Oh sure. And I think that's why I was also attracted to the idea of telling true stories about people. I was always interested in journalism and everything my grandfather did in the newspaper. My father (Peter Gelb, general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera) produced television programs. My mother (Donna Gelb) was a cook and still develops recipes for books. If we add all that, my career comes up a bit.
He rose to fame with the documentary 'Jiro dreams of sushi'. Why do you think the movie was so successful? I have my theory, but I want to know yours.
When the film was released, in 2012, sushi was very fashionable; It was no longer an esoteric meal at all. But nobody knew where the sushi came from, nor what the sushi really looked like. That informative aspect helped a lot. On the other hand, we focus more on specific characters than on information. People want stories and want characters with whom they can identify. The one of 'Jiro' is a story about brothers; on succession; about a son who wants to impress his father € And thanks to the development of digital cameras (in this case a RED One), although we were two on the team, we could shoot that almost as if it were a movie for IMAX. As if it were 'Planet Earth'.
My theory is that Jiro's ethics, his pursuit of excellence, could be inspiring for any viewer, whether dedicated to cooking or not.
His philosophy can be applied to any art form. Or any trade, really.
He has spoken of 'Chef's table' as an extension of 'Jiro dreams of sushi'. But visual language is something different, especially when filming food.
For me it is not so different. I would have liked to film the food of 'Jiro' as we have done in the series. But then I didn't have the tools or the human team to make those controlled camera movements or have elaborate lighting. It is a progression. Already in 'Jiro' we use only cinema lenses, which almost nobody used for documentaries, perhaps saving Errol Morris and other important directors. Of course, nobody used them for food documentaries.
What were the visual references of the series? I think you can see traces of Terrence Malick. All that reverie …
There is much Terrence Malick, in the sense that the camera seems to float. In the series we could afford to use more Steadicam. We also had more light in the kitchen, which facilitated the use of slow motion and, in general, more creative camera work. Besides Malick, it was in my head Errol Morris, who knows how to apply the tools of cinema to documentaries. Or Godfrey Reggio and the trilogy 'Qatsi'. Or 'Baraka', which I put to the directors of photography of 'Chef's table' to serve as inspiration.
The aesthetics of 'Chef's table' has been very imitated, not only in the documentary plane, but also in some reality show, like 'Everyone at the table'. Do you plan a certain registry change?
I know the look of the series has become ubiquitous. Everyone is using reduced depth of field and film lenses in documentaries of all kinds. Right now, what matters to us is to find the best stories and find the best way to tell them. 'Street food' already has a different, looser, less controlled style, partly because we don't have control of space here. That lack of freedom may be fine. Nor do we want viewers to believe that a layer of artifice interposes between them and the characters. It has been an opportunity to remove that layer. Be part of your evolution, of your debugging as an artist: you learn to get to the heart of history with less and less brushstrokes. It's a very Japanese philosophy, really. Pursuing perfection through minimalism. Take the least number of steps to get communication.
How do chefs choose those they choose to portray? What is more important? That they are good or that they are a good story?
What we are looking for, above all, is a good story. Many have revolved around chefs who discover their talent and look for the best way to use it. They are like stories of superhero origins. We also look for diversity, that they are from all parts of the world, that they are at different points of their career, in different kinds of restaurants € We do not want to tell the same thing over and over again.
Among the episodes you have directed yourself, is the one starring Jordi Roca, the pastry chef of El Celler De Can Roca. What attracted you to your story?
I have a little brother and, for some reason, I have always been interested in fraternal dynamics, something that was already present in 'Jiro'. The idea of three brothers, each with a different role, working in the same place, and harmoniously, seemed really interesting. It is not something that happens easily. I wondered how they had come to that. It was a great option for the season dedicated to baking. Tell the story of Joan Roca's restaurant, one of the best chefs in the world, from the perspective of the little brother.
Fraternal dynamics also govern the magnificent episode about Albert Adrià (directed by Jimmy Goldblum). Was it always clear that it should be about Albert and not about Ferran?
People know El Bulli, but they don't know Albert Adrià's work too much. It was, again, to observe one of the great institutions of world cuisine from an unexpected perspective. He is a magnificent chef and we wanted to give him the opportunity to tell his story.
With the spin-off 'Street food', they seem to want to remind us that there is also a large kitchen in street stalls.
If a chef dazzles, it is for his passion, not necessarily for the quality of the tablecloths. It was a necessary counterpart to 'Chef's table', although we had already begun to stop glorifying only the most exclusive restaurants in the world. We felt we could go further. And we love street food. Every time we go somewhere in the world, it is something we explore thoroughly. So we met great people with a lot of passion. We thought they could give rise to a great series. We were also interested in contributing some historical context: explaining, for example, how French cuisine has influenced Vietnamese dishes, or how the Korean war influenced street cooking. We use the narrative techniques of 'Chef's table', but we focus on a different kind of character and provide much more context.
Why would you say that so many gastronomic series have emerged in recent years? Is it the result of renewed interest in the documentary? Does it have to do with the rise of the foodie culture? Or is it for 'Chef's table'?
They are all these things. In my opinion, 'Chef's table' showed that chefs are great characters, with trips to tell and a lot of charisma. We were very inspired by Anthony Bourdain. Their programs were not only about cooking, but about people, something that has marked much the subsequent production on these topics. Almost everyone has begun to be more interested in food; Know what you eat and eat well. Once you start doing it, it is impossible to go back. We all like to discover sites and recommend them. Food is something that unites a lot. Everyone eats.
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