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Today, February 17, Season 3 of the popular Netflix series, Chef’s Table, will be released. Created by David Gelb, it is a continuation of his mesmerising, and much-praised 2011 feature-length documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which came out when the director was 28.
Gelb is now a grizzled veteran of 33, and the Netflix series is a sort of apotheosis of famous Chefs with a capital C: Chef’s Table features people who are pushing boundaries, breaking molds, doing the wonderful, the never-done-before. Revolutionaries, not solid practitioners of long-established arts.
The six chef protagonists of season three will be Virgilio Martinez from Peru, Ivan Orkin from New York, Jeong Kwan from South Korea, Vladimir Mukhin from Russia, Tim Raue from Germany and Nancy Silverton from LA.
Wondering what David Gelb's favourite episode is? Fine Dining Lovers had the opportunity to speak with the director about season three, the making of Chef’s Table and his thoughts on whether great chefs are also great artists.
What are the criteria for choosing the chefs? How much was them having dynamic personalities on-screen a factor? Or was it all about a good story and a high level of food?
It's a combination of those things. The requirements for our show is that it has to be a chef who is doing something that has not been done before. They are challenging some kind of norm, breaking some kind of boundary. That's what makes their story interesting. Anyone who is willing to take a risk, challenge the norm. People with that kind of mindset tend to have an interesting origin story. There's something in their life. There's something that planted that seed to be creative, the need to tell their story or convey a feeling or an image.
So when we're searching for chefs, we look for the most interesting food in the world and when we find it, we try to deduce what is the story behind it. Stories that involve people who have had doors slammed in their face. Who don't know the meaning of the word “No.“ People who try to do something in a certain way only to discover that they've done it all wrong, that they have failed. And from the ashes of that failure, they discover what their true purpose or calling is.
These are inspiring stories for people and are inspiring to me as a filmmaker: I identify with the chefs.
And finally, the chefs need to be able to communicate their story on camera. Our show is unique in the food world, because we don't have a host. We don't have a personality leading the show from episode to episode. The chef is telling their own story. But what we have found is that chefs are good at telling their story. They have had to do it their entire lives.
It is serendipitous that food is a subject matter we're interested in and that the chefs generally happen to be interesting people with good stories to tell.
Do you have a favourite episode of the series?
I am personally more invested in the episodes that I directed, because I'm there and I personally know the chef. So I find myself swept up in them because of having had the experience of filming them. But one of the things I'm proudest of about the show is that we've made every episode compelling. In the upcoming season, I'm particularly partial to our episode about the Korea Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan.
Her food is not only beautiful, but she is an enlightened person. She'd never say this, but for me I feel that she is. She has such an incredible warmth and love of all things in the world ... She's a teacher and in the process of making that episode, I felt that I was a student. She cooks only vegan food. She doesn’t have a restaurant, she cooks for her monastery, for her fellow nuns. The food is extraordinary in its depth, in its beauty. I just didn't know it was possible to do that. She doesn't even use onions or garlic, because those are un-Buddhist ingredients that create a sense of greed while you're eating. She teaches you not only how to cook, but how to eat well and how to live well. But without ever judging, even though she knew we were carnivores. She was only there to try to help us and teach us. I was just so moved by her sense of the world. And her patience. She'll put something in a jar and bury it underground and revisit it six months later, or a year later, or 10 years later. It's a kind of long-term cooking, allowing all of the organisms of nature to play their part. In fermentation, you've got all sorts of bacteria and microbes that grow and add to the flavour. For Jeong Kwan, those are her collaborators. She works with them. The food is part of her meditation and practice. Cooking is a part of it. Eating it is a way of appreciating the world around you.
Do you think great chefs can also be considered great artists, in a traditional sense?
I think that some chefs are artisans and some chefs are true artists: the sign of that is when the chef is trying to tell a story, communicate an idea, I think that this is when they become artists, story-tellers.
There's a tremendous amount of risk in what a chef does: opening a restaurant is an incredible risk and the competition is fierce. In order to be successful, you have to try and show that your restaurant is conveying a new idea, a new phenomenon is happening here.
The hardest thing they have to do is keep that going every single night: it's like a live performance. People compare it to being a director: a director has a vision and then they have to move everyone in the same direction. These chefs don't work on their own: they come up with an idea, they develop it with their staff, and then it can take an army to produce the food of this quantity and quality. And they have to do it right every single night. For me, it's almost like performance art: that's how I see it.