First time in Singapore, fresh off the plane, and David Gelb, the creator of Netflix’s docu-series Chef’s Table, has already tried Singapore’s iconic dishes—black pepper crab and chilli crab at Lau Par Sat. Gelb is in the midst of producing the fourth season of the hit food show. And pssst we hear he is checking out Burnt Ends and Restaurant Andre. Here is what else we got from the man in 30 minutes:
On Chef’s Table, what sort of food porn gets you off?
I’ll like to think of it as food romance and not food porn. It’s more than just the food, it’s the story behind it. I like the emotional context that is behind the food. For example: in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there’s the story of the young apprentice who has to make the egg sushi over 200 times before they would allow him to serve it to the customers—and that’s after he’s been working at the restaurant for 10 years. And finally when he gets it right, he’s moved to tears. For me the most beautiful food should have an emotional background to make it memorable.
For each episode, we have one day dedicated to shooting the food in a very beautiful way. That’s the crew’s favourite day. We would have all our lighting set up, and the food comes in and we do our shoot. All of our crew members would have chopsticks and forks and knives on their tool belt on that day. As soon as we are done, everybody just goes and attacks the dish.
How do you choose your subjects?
It’s the hardest part of the show and it’s the most important part. The entire show is built around the characters. We look for chefs of a certain standard of skills, who are making very beautiful and interesting food. But we also look for a dynamic personal story. What was the journey they took to become a chef or to realise their artistic vision?
We have chefs with varying experiences, from different parts of the world. Some of the chefs going to be quite famous but some of the chefs are not so famous and we are shining a light on them that maybe people haven’t seen before. So there are some discoveries for the audience as well. We are also looking for chefs who are not only making very expensive food but chefs that are a bit more accessible. For example, Ivan Orkin’s bowl of ramen costs only $20—we want to show that these stories are not only limited to super luxury restaurants.
How hard is it to convince these chefs to be on camera?
The first season is the hardest because it is the beginning of a new show. It’s easier if they have seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi before. After the first season was well received, it became a lot easier to book the chefs. Many food shows film for a short period of time but we are asking for a full two weeks. Often the chefs that we are looking for are so passionate and concerned with cooking in the kitchen that they don’t have time for us. If a chef says no, then we keep on asking and asking and we tell their friends to ask to get them eventually.
One of the toughest chef to book was Michel Troisgros. He is a very famous chef and part of a long line of important chefs who have been instrumental in the history of the cuisine in France. He said no at first his son convinced to do it because his son watched the show.
How has your show progress? What have you kept the same or changed through the past three seasons?
I’m a fan of classical music. In fact, the opening credits of show is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Winter– which is a song that I have loved for a long time. The song is a recomposed by Max Richter and that piece of music is actually in every single episode. But the music has changed a bit since the first season. We had a lot of classical music in the first season. Now we try to adapt the style of music to still feel like Chef’s Table but to reveal something about the character of the chef. For example, Alex Atala calls himself a punk chef so we used some rock and roll music and guitars. For Ivan Orkin, we used a lot of jazz music.
What do you think of the spoofs on Chef’s Tables?
Being parodied is probably the best honour. I’m incredibly flattered. There is so much room for comedy in food because you take it so seriously like it’s a painting, but then it’s just going to be eaten. I’ve seen a half dozen of spoofs all of which I thought were really funny. I like Documentary Now’s Juan Likes Chicken And Rice because they really nailed our style of cinematography. They called our cinematographer to find out what kind of cameras we were using. And the story is actually quite moving because the son goes back to the dad’s restaurant and helps him. I was like wow I wished our stories were more like that in Jiro.
How has filming Chef’s Table changed your eating habits?
I’m a big meat eater but that has changed since directing the episode on Alain Passard the French chef who does a full vegetable cuisine and Jeong Kwan who cooks vegan temple food. Whenever I travel I’ve been eating these incredible heavy meals all the time, so whenever I’m at home I try to eat like a monk. I do something with grains, like a mushroom risotto but I use farro instead of rice. I steal a lot of tips from the episodes and I have a big collection of cookbooks. A great cookbook is Alice Waters’ The Art Of Simple Food. All those vegetable. Cook vegetables that are appropriate for the seasons. Alain Passard says that if you choose vegetables within the seasons, all the vegetables will combine in really interesting ways. The seasons create the combinations for you.