David Gelb became a documentary directing sensation with the provocative Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film that uses low depth of field shots of sushi and inspirational quotes from their chef, the famous Jiro, to create a thoughtful piece on what it means to dedicate your life to something. (The film is leaving Netflix instant in a bit over a week, so I’d suggest that you watch it there while you still can.) Since then, he has teamed up with Netflix to create the equally beautiful documentary series Chef’s Table. Gelb has only directed one of the six episodes in the series’ first season, featuring Italian chef Massimo Bottura, but they’re all brilliant portrayals of the struggles of the craft. His episode is my favorite so far (though I’ve only watched four) because it so closely resembles Jiro in its cinematography (though Gelb was the cinematographer on Jiro whereas Bottura’s episode done by Will Basanta) and the beautifully slow pacing of its storytelling.
Unlike many shows about chefs and cooking, this series focuses more on the background and thought process of the chef in question. Every episode features a different chef, ranging in location and type of food from traditional, fire-roasted Argentinian cuisine in Patagonia to Japanese kaiseki in Los Angeles. What I love most about Chef’s Table is that it isn’t a show just for foodies. While the gastronomical images will give you what is technically known as a food-gasm, the series also hits many of the problems we face as a result of the human condition by showing how these chefs had to struggle through life and their craft in order to reach where they are now.
Honestly, I am the type of person who makes themselves a PB&J for lunch every day and makes barely seasoned baked chicken and tofu & spinach soup for dinner (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy good food as well). And I still love what I’ve gotten out of Gelb’s series. As with Jiro, each episode imparts to us the knowledge of how to work toward our best self while also demonstrating the importance of stepping back from the world and taking things at a slower pace. Great things are not accomplished through entitlement, we learn, but through years of hard work that define us as individuals.
Something beautiful that I’ve learned from both Jiro and this series is that we will never reach our best self–and that’s okay. It is more important that we recognize there will always be room for improvement and continuously strive to be better. Jiro, for example, lives the life of a “shokunin.” Literally, this means “craftsman” or “artisan,” but as author Tasio Orate clarifies, being a shokunin “means not only having technical skills but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.” This understanding of the word suggests that constantly becoming better is not about being the best. Developing your craft, then, is not done for momentary awards, which are ultimately unfulfilling, but about contributing to society–a trait visible in Massimo Bottura. (You can see how much I love this guy.)
Bottura’s episode begins on him discussing how he saved Modena, the city in which his restaurant is run, by creating a parmigiano-based risotto after an earthquake hit in order to sell the cheese that would have otherwise been useless. (The practice of making such a risotto, as a learned from one of my foodie friends, is so common now it is not considered strange, but back then, it was revolutionary.) His attitude as he tells the story is in no way cocky and it is clear that he seeks no praise for his actions, but it is important to note that his pursuit to become a great chef led him to accomplish this social service. He does not discuss his accolades–there are only short, noninflected references to their existence–but rather makes a point of telling a story of how working with food can positively impact society.
This, rather than the mouthwatering images that linger on the screen, is what we need to take from watching Gelb’s documentaries: developing our crafts–whatever they may be–is not about gaining recognition or awards; though those things may come, what we really should be focused on is the impact of what we do on society.
If you haven’t seen Jiro or Chef’s Table, I suggest you watch them as soon as possible.