Chef’s Table has become one of television’s most celebrated food-themed programs since it debuted in 2015, but there was a time the Netflix series faced an uphill battle getting made.
“Nobody wanted to hear a pitch about a food show without a celebrity host attached to it except for Netflix,” creator and executive producer David Gelb recalls. “I’m very fortunate they had the vision to let me come in and make the show with them, which is really unique in the food space with no host and no culinary instruction.”
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Now in its sixth season, Chef’s Table is Emmy-nominated again this year for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. Throughout its history, the show has focused each episode on a single chef.
“It’s about a biographical, emotional journey through a creative life,” Gelb explains. “The focus [is] on story, on passionate characters, on emotion and really looking at why chefs cook, not how they cook.”
Recent seasons have expanded the roster of profiled chefs to include some with more affordable restaurants, like Cristina Martinez, owner of South Philly Barbacoa.
“She’s an undocumented immigrant, but she brings such incredible value and culture with her,” Gelb notes. “We really wanted to make a film about her beautiful barbacoa that she cooks in Philadelphia, but also, to tell a story about a struggle and coming from a place, trying to make a better life for yourself, which is a really an important issue right now since we’re in a situation where immigrants are being demonized by the highest office in the land.”
The first episode of Season 6 focused on Mashama Bailey, chef and owner of a restaurant located in a historic space in Savannah, Georgia.
“[It’s] in what was a segregated Greyhound bus station and she kind of just changed the space and put it to a greater purpose,” Gelb observes. “Her food is beautiful. She…creates updated versions of her own childhood favorite dishes, everything from shrimp and grits to ‘thrills’ which are these kind of popsicles people make in their own freezers at home.”
Chef’s Table is noted for its sumptuous production values, with camera work and sizzling audio that almost makes food leap through the screen.
“On Chef’s Table we just go in with the big guns…I’m always shooting on whatever the highest quality cameras and lenses available are,” the executive producer tells Deadline. “We try to use all the tools of cinema, from sound, music, cinematography, all these things to draw the audience into the character in the way that any film would.”
Chef’s Table by no means qualifies as Gelb’s first foray into culinary documentary. He directed the award-winning 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi about an octogenarian master chef in Japan.
“On Jiro Dreams of Sushi the crew was a total of five people and that includes post-production,” Gelb states, in contrast to the significantly bigger team on his Netflix series. “Chef’s Table is a much larger organization and so I’ve been able to work with great partners, learn to collaborate better, learn to work with a larger crew. And, watching the chefs like this has informed our work and made us better.”
The popularity of Chef’s Table led to a spinoff series, Chef’s Table: France. And Gelb is behind the new Netflix series Street Food.
“It’s sort of a continuation of Chef’s Table,” Gelb comments, “but looking more at kind of the street food and city life and cultures of different cities in Southeast Asia.”
Another indication of Gelb’s success—his work has received the parody treatment on more than one occasion.
“We’ve been parodied on Portlandia. Fred Armisen is obsessed with Chef’s Table, I guess,” Gelb told a documentary forum in Los Angeles last week. “He did an airport sushi sketch shot in our style, with the most disgusting looking sushi ever. And then on the show Documentary Now!, instead of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, they did Juan Likes Chicken and Rice.”
Gelb traces his interest in all things culinary to his mom and dad.
“I love to eat and I credit my parents for that,” he says. “They’re both cooks. My mom is a recipe chef who writes recipes for cookbooks. She’s done the technical recipe work on both of Francis Mallmann’s books.”
His father, Peter Gelb, has long been involved in the arts and classical music and currently runs the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“When my dad traveled the world when I was young, he took me along on these business trips, and he would take me to great restaurants with him, along with the opera stars,” he remembers. “I’ve just always loved to sit down at a table and have a great meal and so I get to share that perspective with anyone who watches our work. That’s continued in Chef’s Table.”
Recognition from the Television Academy for Chef’s Table is especially meaningful to Gelb, in part because his father has also won multiple Emmys.
“It’s always been something that I’ve looked up to in my dad about his trophy case,” he acknowledges. “It’s an incredible feeling of validation to be nominated [for Chef’s Table]. It motivates us to just keep going and to keep pushing the series further, broadening the scope of what we’re doing and finding really beautiful stories and we’re going to keep doing it.”