With ‘Wolfgang,’ David Gelb Adds to His Legacy of Lionizing Lone Chefs
Late into Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the seminal documentary that premiered 10 years ago this month, there’s a scene that threatens to upend the whole project—not just the film itself, but the decade of food media that’s followed in its footsteps. Jiro is a feature-length tribute to its namesake, the aging sushi chef Jiro Ono. But, Ono argues, he may be getting too much credit.
“They think the staff in the kitchen have it easy, and they think the master making sushi has the hardest job,” Ono says of the customers who pay handsomely for the privilege of eating his food. “But in reality, the sushi is 95 percent complete before the fish is brought out to me. The guy doing the least work gets to take all the limelight.”
Jiro’s director, David Gelb, went on to create Chef’s Table, the docuseries that became Netflix’s first unscripted original and remains the longest-running show on the streaming service. (Chef’s Table has aired six full seasons to date, plus two spinoffs and a creative cousin in the more casual Street Food.) Which is why it’s so striking to revisit his feature debut and find such an explicit challenge to the idea that drives so much of Gelb’s work: the singular genius of the chef, an obsessive artisan who elevates a trade into an art through sheer force of will.
The concept is a vital corrective to the cook as an anonymous, blue-collar grunt, the prevailing view of the chef, particularly in the United States, before the late 20th century. But it’s come under attack lately for obscuring other jobs in the kitchen by elevating just one. “Restaurants are the work of teams,” critic Tejal Rao argued last year in The New York Times in a piece titled “The End of Chefs.” “Each role, each day, plays a part in a restaurant’s success.” This pushback is, in part, against the Gelb oeuvre, a major force in canonizing the chef as sole creative visionary. Except, as the Jiro excerpt implies, that idealization and Gelb’s work may not be as synonymous as they seem.
To hear Gelb tell it, his time working with chefs has taught him the value of collaboration and the pitfalls of auteur theory, not the reverse. At first, Gelb more or less worked solo, filming Jiro by himself apart from a translator and editing with his college roommate Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer. The streamlined crew helped save money for a director at the start of his career, but it also maintained control. “We did everything ourselves, not only out of necessity, but I was such a micromanager I didn’t trust anybody,” Gelb says. But his time in TV helped broaden his horizons. “The biggest place I’ve grown is in terms of teamwork,” Gelb explains. “I had to just get out of my head and trust that if you bring in a great team, they’re actually going to exceed my expectations if I give them the room to do so.” Most creative processes can work as a metaphor for other mediums. Food and filmmaking are no exception.
On Friday, Disney+ will release Gelb’s Wolfgang, a portrait of Wolfgang Puck that doubles as a sort of origin story for the idea of the chef-auteur. Over and over again, Puck’s peers and admirers drive home the point that the Austrian mogul set the mold for what we now call the celebrity chef. “Wolf brought the chef into the limelight as someone to be talked about, someone to be written about,” says Evan Funke, the pasta expert who got the Puck treatment with a show of his own on the short-lived Quibi platform. Puck’s L.A. flagship, Spago, features an open kitchen that put the chef’s work front and center. His patrons were (and are) celebrities themselves, who gave him tips for how to burnish his own: Johnny Carson gave Puck the idea to sell frozen foods, while CAA founder Michael Ovitz took Puck on as a client between power lunches.
By selling himself, Puck also sold the idea of the chef as someone worth knowing. “Because Wolfgang is the guy who really raised the chef to the level of movie star, that may well be the reason that Jiro Dreams of Sushi or Chef’s Table even exists,” Gelb says. There’s also a more direct link between Puck and Gelb’s career path: When Gelb was a teenager, his father took him to eat at Spago, where Puck personally greeted each table. “I loved to eat, but I never really thought about who was doing the cooking until I met him,” Gelb recalls. At just under 80 minutes, Wolfgang feels like a supersized episode of Chef’s Table—which is how the idea of a Puck paean first came up, before Gelb decided the legend loomed large enough to merit a stand-alone look.
As a film school graduate, Gelb fell into documentaries almost by accident. “I thought, ‘Once I finish USC, they’ll draft me to direct a Harry Potter movie or something,’” he says, laughing. “That’s the kind of delusion a lot of people go into film school with.” When the blockbuster offers didn’t materialize, Gelb found himself drawn to unscripted material, which was far easier to produce without major financing. Not that a lower budget equated to lower ambitions. Gelb’s original plan for what became Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and later Chef’s Table, was to do for food film what the BBC’s Planet Earth had done for nature. This lofty goal inspired what have since become Gelb’s signature aesthetic choices: crisp camerawork, slow motion, and classical music. Jiro used Philip Glass for its soundtrack, modeled in part after Glass’s frequent collaborations with documentarian Errol Morris; Chef’s Table famously uses Vivaldi.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi debuted in 2011, but it found its primary audience a year later when Netflix made the film available to subscribers. This was before House of Cards or Stranger Things, let alone the rise of competitors like Wolfgang host Disney+. It was the streaming Stone Age, which allowed Gelb to get in on the ground floor of a force that would reshape not just his career, but an entire industry. Under the leadership of executives like Lisa Nishimura, now the company’s head of independent film and documentary features, Netflix has made unscripted genres like true crime (Making a Murderer), competition (The Circle), and, of course, food (Salt Fat Acid Heat) cornerstones of its original programming. But before it became an entrenched strategy, Chef’s Table was Netflix’s earliest success story in the docuseries domain.
“I have to give credit to Netflix, because the subscription model made it so that someone could just take a risk on watching a new documentary,” Gelb says. “You didn’t have to make that decision: ‘Am I going to go see the big blockbuster movie, or am I going to spend that $10, $20 watching a little movie that I’m not sure if I’m going to like or not’? Netflix made it so [that] you don’t need to risk spending money on something you might not like.” The documentary boom of recent years, with memorable flash points like the competing Fyre Fest films in 2019, is inextricable from the growth of streaming services hungry for exclusive, (relatively) inexpensive content. Netflix may have led the trend, but it’s no longer a monopoly; just as Wolfgang landed on Disney+, where Gelb’s company, Supper Club, also produced Marvel’s 616, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently streaming on Hulu.
Chef’s Table arrived on the scene almost fully formed. With its mouthwatering closeups and inspiring origin stories, the series is highbrow enough to flatter one’s taste, but not so much that its pleasures aren’t immediately accessible. Starting with Massimo Bottura, the Modena modernist famous for his inventive take on Italian classics, the show put forward a distinct house style, applied to everyone from Argentine epicure Francis Mallmann to Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi.
So established is the Chef’s Table playbook that spoofing the show is now a cottage industry unto itself. Portlandia did a riff on airport sushi, a sketch Fred Armisen built on for “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken,” a Jiro-esque episode of his show Documentary Now!; there’s also the YouTube series Gods of Food from comedian Rekha Shankar. Gelb, for his part, is a good sport about the digs, which mostly take aim at the show’s self-seriousness. The director says he’s “flattered and honored” by the parodies—especially when they reach out to make sure they’re using the right camera lenses to replicate the look, as the Documentary Now! crew did.
But not all critiques of Chef’s Table are lighthearted jokes. The show is largely an ode to the restaurant industry—a massively unequal, often abusive work environment—and risks replicating its flaws. Many of the chefs featured, especially in early seasons, are white men who make expensive food for rich clients who can afford it; one episode featuring German chef Tim Raue shows Raue berating his staff with what the show portrays as tough love. In glorifying its subjects, Chef’s Table could flirt with glorifying the screwed-up system they’d succeeded in.
As the years have gone on, Chef’s Table has worked to expand its range, with some attempts more successful than others. The flagship show threw a spotlight on Ivan Orkin, who sells world-class ramen for $17 a bowl, and Savannah’s Mashama Bailey, a Black woman who built her restaurant in a formerly segregated bus station. Chef’s Table: BBQ depicts the craft and care in an underappreciated art. And with two seasons set throughout Asia and Latin America, Gelb’s Street Food aims for a more egalitarian vision of what deserves the Chef’s Table treatment. At the less successful end of the spectrum, an otherwise beautiful episode centering Jeong Kwan, a Korean Buddhist nun who cooks understated, plant-based food, falls short in enlisting two Westerners to explain her food to the audience. Chef’s Table is always evolving, but with growth comes growing pains.
“We focused a lot on really high-end fine dining at the beginning of the series, but we opened that up quite a bit,” Gelb says. “Any shop that is passionate about what they do, is making food that is interesting, and has a great story is potentially a candidate for Chef’s Table.” The most obvious way to modernize the Chef’s Table M.O. is by widening the scope of who can be the star. (One highlight centers Cristina Martinez, the undocumented co-owner of South Philly Barbacoa.) But it also means adjusting the approach to even old-school idols. The unlikely heroine of Wolfgang, for example, is Puck’s ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff, the credited cofounder of Puck’s restaurant empire who first conceived of the open kitchen, among other Spago staples. There’s a fundamental irony to Wolfgang’s arc. Even as Puck helped chefs get their rightful due after being overshadowed by owners, Puck’s own celebrity hid the essential contributions of his most important collaborator.
Gelb’s own collaborators have only grown in importance since Jiro. Brian McGinn, an executive producer on Chef’s Table who also cocreated Street Food, came aboard after Gelb saw his short film about the record holder for most Guinness world records; now, Gelb credits him with “leading the charge” on finding chefs to feature. And as the Chef’s Table universe continues to expand, so do the opportunities available to down-the-line crew. Street Food cinematographer Alexander D. Paul, for instance, started as a camera operator on Chef’s Table. “We want to give our editing assistant the chance to become the editor. We want to give our camera assistant a chance to become a cinematographer,” Gelb says. “We’re trying to give people, as they’re ready for it, opportunities.” Here, Gelb cites Puck as a model, one more instance of one art reflecting another: “He’s only able to have all these different restaurants because of the chefs that have excelled in his kitchen. He’s able to then give them bigger jobs by opening up a new restaurant, and putting that person in.”
Ten years after Jiro Dreams of Sushi, food TV is utterly transformed from where it stood at Food Network’s peak in the aughts. Chef’s Table isn’t the only force driving this trend; Top Chef has continued to grow in relevance during the same stretch of time, Anthony Bourdain raised the bar for the travel show, and YouTube has hosted phenomena like Bon Appétit’s since-fractured test kitchen. But the Chef’s Table touch is obvious in everything from High on the Hog, a lyrical exploration of Black foodways in the United States, to TikTok, where lovingly shot cooking tutorials flood the feed. It’s no longer enough to make delicious food—it has to look the part, and come with a story as enticing as the meal.
“It presents a challenge to me, because now everybody is shooting with the high-end cameras and lenses,” Gelb says. “Now that’s ubiquitous, so we have to pursue substance and story. That’s the only place to go. I can’t cover it up with just beautiful cinematography.” Chef’s Table is currently plotting out its next two seasons, for which Gelb has to keep moving the camera away from stagnancy. It’s a good thing he isn’t doing it alone.