Scheduling a call with David Gelb, the creator of Netflix's acclaimed documentary series, Chef's Table, as well as Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a bit like playing Jenga—it requires calculation and strategy. During standard New York office hours, it's likely to be the middle of the night where Gelb is or 5 a.m., depending on his international shooting schedule. Regardless of where he is, he's not likely to be sitting in an office, rather spending time with a Zen Buddhist nun who is creating awe-inspiring food or visiting with one of the greatest chefs in any given country.
The second season of Chef's Table, which comes out today in 190 countries, takes viewers everywhere from deep within the Amazon with Alex Atala to bustling Mexico City with Enrique Olvera to the pristine kitchen of Alinea with Grant Achatz to a small village in Slovenia that functions without a grocery store to the Bay Area with Dominique Crenn. "Choosing the chefs is the hardest part," Gelb explains over the phone during a quick shooting break.
Filming or not, he and his team are "always reading, researching, trying to find chefs who have very compelling personal stories and chefs who tell their story through their food," he says. "We want to have chefs who have different takes on the same themes," he explains. Creativity and resilience in the face of criticism, from within or from critics, "That unifies a lot of the episodes," Gelb says. But it's also crucial that the series feature "different personalities, textures and parts of the world." Those parts of the world can be a short flight away, like Chicago, or sometimes take literally days to reach. For last season's episode with Francis Mallmann, the crew took a plane to a boat to a several-hours-long jeep ride to another boat to get to an island that's connected to the world only via satellite phone. This season's hardest destination to reach?, The Amazon rain forest with Atala.
While Gelb and his team are careful to cover a wide swath of territory and cuisines, there is a noticeable omission from the first two seasons second season: Not a single episode features a French chef. That was intentional, Gelb says, because the upcoming third season, a four-episode miniseries premiering later this year, is dedicated entirely to France. "In a lot of ways, it's sort of the mecca of food," Gelb says. "So many of the techniques that are standard in kitchens across the world come from France. . . . We intentionally didn't use a French chef before, hoping we would have an opportunity like this," he adds.
The upcoming all-French season spans from Old World to New, starting with the great Alain Passard of L'Arpege; then focuses on the culinary legacy of Michel Troisgros, whose father and grandfather helped pioneer nouvelle cuisine; and even spends time with Adeline Grattard at yam'Tcha, where Chinese cooking meets French cuisine. The season ends with forward-thinking chef Alexandre Couillon, who lives and cooks on an island off the coast of France near the city of Nantes.
Those waiting with baited breath to see what the cooking of a Buddhist nun in Korea looks like will have to wait until next year for season four, which is as far as the series goes (for now). But Gelb has hopes it will continue. When asked who he hasn't featured yet but would like to, he keeps quiet, not wanting to give potential future plans away. He concedes his team has talked about episodes dedicated to great masters who are now retired and leaves us with, "If I could do one with anyone dead or alive, and if I could rewind time, like, 30 years, it would probably be with Paul Bocuse." Until then, we will be devouring all that season two has to offer.
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