'Chef's Table' Is Not Food Porn, It Is Food Romance

Photo: Netflix

Born out of the idea of wanting to make a food program that wasn’t a competition or a travel show, filmmaker David Gelb was inspired to create Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the 2011 critically acclaimed documentary film about an 85-year-old sushi master. The success of that film eventually led to Chef’s Table, a docuseries on Netflix now in its third season (debuting online Feb. 17). The series is comprised of “biographical, cinematic films about chefs telling their own stories,” says Gelb, creator and executive producer of the Emmy-nominated show that has quickly fascinated audiences with its previously untold stories of the world’s top chefs and restaurants. 

In its first two seasons -- plus a French-language offshoot, Chef’s Table: France -- the Netflix series has featured renowned and award-winning chefs Dan Barber, Gaggan Anand, Grant Achatz, Magnus Nilsson and Massimo Bottura while also shining a light on lesser known personalities, such as Ana Roš. Each of them, Gelb says, is deserving of their own feature film. “We want to give a portrait [of these chefs] and take the audience on a journey of their lives to answer the question about not what they cook, but why they do it.”

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In fact, the filmmaker likens each episode to a superhero origin story, “because these chefs have powers and their journey is learning how to use them properly.” It’s what Gelb and co-executive producer Brian McGinn (Netflix’s Amanda Knox) look for in the featured chefs. “We have a lot of admiration for chefs that are swimming upstream and doing things that haven’t been done before and are refusing to take no for an answer.” A prime example of that is Roš, whose season two episode largely focused on her struggle to make her restaurant Hiša Franko a success -- and to find an audience beyond Slovenia. Her story was surprisingly emotional, revealing her parents’ disappointment and eventual pride in her 16-year journey into fine dining, creating an identity for Slovenian cuisine.

Photo: Netflix

While most of the chefs featured in the first two seasons have unattainable restaurants and dining experiences (Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago starts at $175 per person, and Nilsson’s Fäviken only has 16 seats and is fully booked through the end of June), season three will expand the scope of its focus, telling stories of chefs who serve $20 meals or don’t have a restaurant at all. One episode, about Jeong Kwan, a nun who cooks at a Buddhist temple in South Korea, sees the show go beyond the Michelin stars to tell a layered story about philosophy and humanity’s relationship to food. Another episode follows Ivan Orkin, the self-described “Jewish kid from Long Island” behind Ivan Ramen, as he travels back and forth between New York City and Japan. “It’s not a $300 meal, but their stories are just as beautiful,” Gelb says.

Of course, the series’other draw is its beautiful depictions of food. In some ways, Chef’s Table is to food shows the way Planet Earth (returning with a second series) is to animal documentaries; both have created new, awe-inspiring ways to showcase these worlds. And for the Netflix docuseries’ part, it tapped into a world of food porn that has become a fascination all its own thanks to Instagram and HD programs like The Great British Bake Off, which pay attention to the detail of food creations.

However, what sets Chef’s Table apart is the context. “I like to say that it’s ‘food romance,’” Gelb says. “There’s emotional context between the chefs and the food, between the audience and the food. It’s different than showing a bunch of close-up shots of a delicious piece of chicken. We want you to know how much the chef toiled away at that chicken and what it meant to them.

“With that kind of context, the food is not only beautiful, it’s meaningful,” Gelb concludes.