How to use classical music to tell a chef’s story
Music can shape your entire experience with food, which is why a good soundtrack at a restaurant shouldn't be intrusive or dramatic. Its subtlety is appreciated when you take a pause inbetween courses, or when your fingers scroll through a menu listing dishes you're not able to pronounce. But when food goes behind the scenes through a documentary like Chef's Table (whether in foraging, preparing or plating), the soundtrack is all the more instrumental — especially in a show without a host.
Documentary filmmaker David Gelb's career choice was probably written in the stars. When you're born to a father who was a manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (as well as a leader of the Sony Classical Record label) and your mother is a recipe chef and cookbook writer, you're destined for a path in music and food. Which is exactly what the 34-year-old Manhattan-born documentary filmmaker has weaved into his line of work.
Catching the eyes of filmmakers and foodies alike with his breakout documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Gelb has continued his love affair with food through three seasons of Chef's Table. To craft sushi master Jiro Ono's story in his first food documentary, Gelb instilled the stylings of Philip Glass and Max Richter. The earlier was employed as a metaphor for Jiro's work ethic — repetitive but escalating. However, for Chef's Table, Gelb used Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: Winter as a dramatic fast and slow build to start each episode — the perfect amuse bouche for the oncoming visual journey.
Season four is currently in the works, although he's keeping mum on details during our chat last week at The Warehouse Hotel. The affable character was in town to give a lecture on virtual reality for advertising firm D&AD. Yes, after whetting our appetite with the cinematic stylings of Chef's Table, the director has gone on to film The Possible — the first documentary series to be filmed in virtual reality. Four episodes have already been released and distributed via the Within app, with the fifth premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival next month.
Sneaking in a chat amid his packed schedule — which included a trip to Lau Pa Sat for satay, black pepper and chili crab — we speak to Gelb about #foodporn, his love for classical music, and working with Emmy-nominated composer Duncam Thum.
You're responsible for inciting lust in your shots of food — be it plating, preparing and finally presenting — what food porn gets you off?
For me, I'd like to think of it as food romance and not food porn, because it's more than just the food, it's about the story behind it. I like the emotional context that's behind the food. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there's a story about the young apprentice who has to make the egg sushi. He has to cook it over 200 times before they would allow it to be served to the customer. And that's after being in the restaurant for 10 years. Finally when he gets it right, he's moved to tears. The audience thinks of the tears that went into making this piece of sushi. For me, the most beautiful food should have an emotional background to resonate with the audience.
What do you think sets Chef's Table apart from other food documentaries?
The entire show is built around the character. We're not teaching the audience how to cook, we're teaching why these chefs cook.
Is everyone who works on Chef's Table a foodie?
On each shoot, we have one day dedicated to shooting food. The food comes in, we do our shots and all of our crew members have chopsticks and knives and stuff on their tool belt.
How has the soundtrack of Chef's Table progressed over three seasons?
We had a lot of classical music for the first season. We try to adapt the style of music to still feel like Chef's Table, but to help us reveal something about the character of the chef. Alex Atala, for example, calls himself a punk chef. So we used some rock and roll music or electric guitars. It still sounds like Chef's Table but we change the instruments a bit. For Ivan Orkin, we used a lot of jazz music. We felt it was more his style.
You're a fan of classical music yourself. Are any of your favourite works incorporated into the show?
The opening credits are Vivaldi's Four Seasons: Winter, which is a song I've loved for a long time. It's a piece of music that's in every single episode. In the first season, we used some famous pieces of classical music, and sometimes the music is an original composition.
Who's a composer you've worked with?
Duncan Thum. For season two and season three, he composes all the music. He's a brilliant composer that I met in college. He's been nominated for two Emmys in a row for Chef's Table.
Finally, what do you whip up for yourself back at home?
When I'm at home, I usually eat like a monk. I've been cooking vegetarian a lot just to be healthy —because when I work and travel, I eat incredibly heavy meals. I'll usually do a mushroom risotto, using farro instead of rice. I steal a lot of things from the episodes. I have a lot of cookbooks. A very good cookbook is The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.
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