Chef’s Table Season 3: Meeting Abigail Fuller and David Gelb

Some stories are meant to be told in English, like this one about our meeting with director Abigail Fuller and Chef’s Table creator David Gelb, who is the mastermind behind the successful food documentary. We decided to publish the interview in English, because meeting them was such a great and unique experience and we don’t want to ruin their clever quotes by translating them into this horrible language that we all know as German.

When we met Fuller and Gelb, we were more than excited and nervous than they were. One of us (we will never reveal which twin) even sweated through her undies, because you know…adrenaline. When you work in the food business you are used to meeting interesting personalities and sometimes even famous people, but nothing compare to the thrill you feel when you meet your own super heroes. We have been watching Chef’s Table a lot and are well familiar with the stories and the style of this show. The Netflix show took a beautiful new turn on documentaries, using techniques that are almost exclusively used in movies. This gives you the feeling of watching a scripted movie, not a snapshot of a real person’s life. Even though lightning in the kitchen is often alternated, the quotes of the chefs are never staged. Chef’s Table found a perfect way to portray the creative process and art of cooking by using cinematographic techniques, beautiful pictures and highly emotional and dramatic music.

We also noticed an effective change in the selection of which chefs are featured and what stories are worth being told. First season was all about white male chefs, cooking traditional fine dining cuisine, defining themselves as chefs and artists and the show was kinda reproducing old stereotypes about excellence and the fine dining community. We can still find those stereotypes in the new season, too: Especially the Tim Raue episode and the stories about him. During our interview Fuller explained that this made her uncomfortable. Why is it still OK to be a misogynist, just because you’re talented? And why would you even consider to portray a person who treated you like that during the production days? We wanted to ask all these questions, but unfortunately we ran out of time.  

Don’t get us wrong, we still loved it and watched each episode more than once, but we missed a more diverse view on the culinary world. The show received a lot of attention, everybody was loving it, but some feminists pointed out the lack of diversity and unlike most of the times, criticism was heard and adjustment were made. We are not sure if the new focus on diversity is because Fuller and Gelb read some of the feminist articles or if it’s because they are super duper clever (and they are!!!) and just came up with this by themselves. During our interview they seemed very aware of sexism and racism and they were totally aware that female chefs, people of color and people without a Michelin Star or other (questionable) awards need to get more attention. Maybe in future seasons we’ll see even more diversity, maybe they will skip the white dudes who „discovered“ the Korean monk and who are now explaining her philosophy to the western world.

We don’t want to be overly critic, like we said, we love the show and we especially adored Fuller and Gelb. They are amazing, creative and smart and so aware of the diversity problems in the culinary scene. Just check out the trailer and you will immediately see the new approach and the will to give a voice to those chefs, who are usually remain unheard. Yes, you still have to be somehow excellent or special to get featured, but the definition on who is excellent and whose story is WORTH to get an entirely episode it changing dramatically.

We know, you probably get that a lot, but what was your favourite story in season 3?

Fuller: They’re all so different and watching the season in a whole is stronger than one individual story, because through these different characters in these different worlds and different foods and different cultures we’d learned about something universal about the storytelling and the life of an artist and the passion for food and the communities or their traditions. So I think the diversity is what it makes it great.

Gelb: The shooting with Jeong Kwan was a very interesting experience for me and one of the reasons I wanted to personally directed that episode, was because it’s completely different from everything we’ve done before. I am a big meat eater and I don’t know that I’ve had a meal without some kind of meat in it – ever. So I thought I’d challenge myself and the entire crew to go vegan for a week and become “incredibly healthy”. So we get there and we had this incredible lunch and it was so interesting and delicious and all those really interesting flavors and the American crew was really loving it and our Korean crew they were very quiet throughout the meal. So when it came for dinner we thought we’ll go back in the monastery and eat vegan again for dinner and then the coordinator of the korean crew says: They don’t want to eat any temple food anymore. They wanted a classic Korean BBQ with meat and lots of garlic and soju and our Korean crew, who were shy and silent are now suddenly playing drinking games and singing songs. When we got back to work the next day and they’re hungover and silent Jeong Kwan said: You guys are having fun last night. But she was never judging us. The contrast between lunch and dinner was really kind of fun because we got to try both sides of Korea every day.

Did the show change your perspective of food and dining?

G: Very much! For me personally, my opinion of vegan and vegetarian cuisine changed considerably. Just remember the episode we did for Chef’s Table France with Alain Passard. He’s such a rock star! Doing Alain Passard and later Jeong Kwan made me appreciate vegetables a lot more. Quality produce and eating with the seasons is something that I learned and that completely changed the way I cook at home and the way that I eat.

F: We can’t have mediocre food anymore. When David came back from one of his episodes I ran into him in L.A. and he was like: either you want the best taco from the best taco truck or you want a great tasting menu from who’s really creating something special. I think we both came into this because we are passionate about food and this has only raised the stakes in terms of the different flavours the different experiences that are out there in the world and you want to experience.

G: We are spoiled and want every meal to be special now.

Jeong Kwan and David Gelb / Photo credits: Se young. Oh. /Netflix

Chef’s Table has created a completely new and unique way to talk about chefs. What was your creative approach and what techniques of filming did you use to create this new image of chefs and dining?

G: We approach the show as a story about a creative person and we are not trying to teach anyone how to cook, but we are trying to discover the reason why this chefs cooks. What is it that happened to them to discover they had this talent or this power and how did they learn to use it responsibly and effectively? The Massimo Botturas episode, which was the first of the series, is just as much a love story and a story about a person’s life as is about what he cooks. And that’s kind of the fundamental core of our show. This is the story about a creative person’s life and food is the setting and the outlet of their art. The other thing is, we don’t have a host so the chefs have to tell the story themselves. That’s a large responsibility for the chefs. We film it like a movie. The lens we use is irresponsible, because the focus is so limited, that you would normally reserve that for a movie. We are shooting it as we are shooting a narrative scripted film. It takes a little bit longer to do it that way and it’s a little bit more expansive. This chef is giving their life story to us and donating a lot of their time and we want to honor them by making something with the best resources that are possible.

Do you use food stylists for the beauty shoots?

G: The chefs are the food stylists. You know, we’re not magicians. The food looks beautiful on camera because they make beautiful looking food. And this is always the crew’s favorite part: we do an entire day of shooting dedicated to filming the dishes. The crew all have spoons and forks in their tool kits and as soon as the shot is cut, and we checked that it’s in focus, everybody just attacks the plate. Abby in the Tim Raue episode actually did something very interesting, where they changed the color of the table to compliment the dish itself and what’s on it. I think this is a very interesting approach.

What was among all dishes within all seasons by far best dish?

G: Something that was a real revolution for me was Massimo’s 5 ages of parmesan, because I didn’t understand how powerful and deep parmesan was. I thought it was just cheese. And it’s one of my favourite foods now. And most recently Jeong Kwan’s very very simple dish: shiitake mushrooms boiled in soy sauce. She has this soy sauce that’s been passed down by the monks and she has different jars of soy sauce. She has one jar of soy sauce that’s been sitting there for over a hundred years aging and going in debt for flavor and I was just blown away by how delicious these mushrooms are.

F: I do have to say that one of the experiences I loved in Slovenia was when we had our lunches with the rest of the restaurant staff. So we weren’t served the food that was just served during the tasting menu, but we were eating  fresh pasta with the mushroom which you would literally harvest out of the garden, fresh salad, always a bottle of a natural wine that Walter had picked out, right in the valley by the mountain and everyone sitting together. So it’s not only the quality of the food, but also who you share it with and where you are eating it. And the story behind it aswell.

Pickled vegetables in bamboo / Photo credits: Se young. Oh. /Netflix

The show changed a lot over time, the first season wasn’t overly diverse. Recently we notice you have focussed on featuring a wider range of cultures and genders. What made you choose this approach? Are you still only feature chefs which are within the 50 best restaurants or have at least one Michelin star?

G: No! Basically the first three seasons (I mean Season 1, France, season 2) they are all pretty much either with a Michelin star or on the 50 best restaurants in the world list. They are very expensive restaurants. The prototype of the series was Jiro Ono Sushi and the reason why it was a featured in a film was because it was a mystery. They work in a subway station but a menu costs 300 dollar per person and that immediately causes a mystery. It’s easier for us to continue that path making films about extremely exclusive and expensive restaurants and try to kinda unravel, why it is like that and what is the kind of magic these types of restaurants. It’s easier to do this with something that is considered as the best and most expensive and exclusive experience. What we are trying to do, is to open it up and show that there are chefs like Nancy Silverton, who has a pizzeria and a restaurant that focuses on pasta and more humble food and she still puts as much passion into creating these dishes. We have a chef, Ivan Orkin, his passion is ramen and that’s a 20 dollar bowl. And Jeong Kwan who doesn’t even have a restaurant. So we wanted to expand it, so it doesn’t feel so exclusive, because they are great chefs who are making great food at all types of price points. And we don’t want to show a selection of your favourite white male chefs. It’s important to open that up and to put the spotlight on excellent female chefs or chefs in different parts of the world or chefs from places where people don’t necessarily really think of a destination for good food. And I think it’s our responsibility to create a more kind of diverse collection, so that people can learn more about very talented people around the world that are not the traditional subject of media.

Meeting Abigail Fuller and David Gelb. / Photo credits: Nora Tabel

Have you experienced a different vibe in the kitchen if there is a male or a female chef?

G: Our experience is that female chefs are generally better! There is less of this kind of machismo and showing off and talking shit and stuff. It can be a real kind of frat party sometimes in some of the kitchens, I wish the United States would run by a woman right now. I think it’s wrong that women are held to other standards and it’s harder for them to get leadership positions and I think that’s ridiculous. And I think women should be running the world by now. Absolutely.

Did chefs ever asked you to get featured?

G: Yes, we do receive inquiries, because it’s helpful for their business. But we often seek out chefs that don’t want to be filmed. I think that the ones, who aren’t particularly interested are chefs who are passionately working in their kitchens and don’t feel they have the time for us. And I think that they made a far more interesting subject than chefs that are more businesslike and are seeking out self promotion. But every situation is different.

Why did you choose to portrait Tim Raue? He’s rather known for being, well excentric.

G: Yah, sometimes a character is so interesting and entertaining and compelling and has a great story and Tim Raue certainly seeks out attention and that’s part of his personality, but he’s no less passionate about his cooking – despite that. When we first started the show I didn’t think we would do a chef that had more than one restaurant. But I think actually we were limiting ourselves in that way, just because someone is running multiple restaurants doesn’t mean that they aren’t incredibly passionate and Tim has a great story to tell!

F: I wasn’t the one who did the casting, but Tim is definitely interesting. Just try to compare Tim and Jeong and you’ll see two people the couldn’t be more on the opposite end of the spectrum and their approach to cooking, but they both are passionate about it and they LOVE it. And I think this is what Chef’s Table does, it shows so many different characters along that spectrum and that’s I think something that the show has done very well. Tim is just another nuance of how a great chef can be and how they can behave.

How was working with Tim Raue?

G: He didn’t ask us to come, but he immediately said yes. But I don’t think that he knew how much work it was gonna be for him, because we dominate their time for almost 10 days.

F: It was definitely a little bit of a culture shock for him to be directed. I showed up too, early before the rest of the crew, to meet him. And when I walked in, he was not expecting the person of running the show to look like – well – me. There was a little bit of an adjustment period, especially when i was like “OK, we need to do this, we need to come and change the light, we need our staging area, I help you chose what you’re gonna wear.“ But after a few days, once he saw that I actually knew what I was doing and after the interviews he got more comfortable with me. I think the interviews were really helpful. Because he opened up a lot and when you spend four or five hours talking about their life and getting into their story, suddenly it forces a connection. We got through it and at the end he wrote me an email that said: There was only three women that I really respect, and you are now one of them.

Shooting on set for Netflix production "Chef's Table" with chef Tim Raue on 12.04.16 in Berlin. / Photo credits: Tobias Koch

Header picture by Nora Tabel. Thanks babe, you’re the best. 

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