Last year, Chef’s Table set the standard for the culinary docu-series. Series Creator David Gelb had in 2011 debuted an elevated style for filming food with the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Food cinematography was no longer defined by static cameras pointed at an aproned Martha Stewart chopping vegetables, or pulling pies out of ovens, on daytime television. Endless programs — Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, Iron Chef — while extremely popular, have gone the way of Emeril. The yelling, the panic, the big-name judges took over, and the art of film cinema was neglected. Bam!
Not anymore. Chef’s Table returns on May 27th with its second season. The newest episodes will travel from the US to Brazil, Slovania, Mexico and Thailand, each episode telling the story of one chef, their restaurant and of course, their dinner. We caught up with the two men behind the camera, Adam Bricker, 30, and Will Basanta, 32, the show’s cinematographers, as they traveled to Moscow and Lima, respectively, for future seasons of the show. Between shoots, they gave us an overview of how they transformed food into art, and what it’s like replicating Gelb’s success on a massive scale.
Q. What’s the story behind how you came to be involved with Chef’s Table?
Adam Bricker. I met Brian McGinn [one of the show’s directors] after he gave notes on a cut of a narrative project I shot. Brian and I subsequently collaborated on a few commercials, and then when Chef’s Table got the green light from Netflix, he introduced me to David Gelb, Andrew Fried and Will Basanta. Prior to this I didn’t have any documentary experience.
Will Basanta. David Gelb first mentioned Chef’s Table to me while we were filming his documentary A Faster Horse, about the Ford Mustang in Detroit. We spent something like 40 days filming during the coldest, snowiest winter in Michigan history. In our downtime we had a number of conversations about the scope, style and needs of Chef’s Table. I’d met both Gelb and director Clay Jeter at USC back in 2004 and we’d all collaborated on a number of passion projects over the years and have always loved great food…
Q. Which shoot during the first season was the most challenging?
WB. The scheduling challenge of trying to pull off a cinematic, intimate, essentially feature-length documentary on a nine-day TV schedule was a major task for the entire team. But individually, for me, the Patagonia episode featuring Francis Mallmann was challenging on a number of levels. It was the first episode of the series I’d shot and also really a departure from the previous two episodes because we were traveling so far, and because Francis didn’t have a kitchen in the strictest sense. The world is his kitchen.
We flew from L.A. to Miami to Buenos Aires, and then onto Comodoro Rivadavia on the coast of Patagonia. From there we had a rough six-hour 4×4 drive through the Patagonia plains, on what could loosely be termed a mud road, to the edge of Lago de La Plata where we loaded all our gear onto boats for a 1.5-hour journey up the lake to Mallmann’s cabin on La Isla. It’s possibly the most remote location I’ve ever been to in my life. When you’re there you truly feel that you are at the end of the world. There was no power of any kind on La Isla, so we had to haul a small generator just to recharge our batteries…but mostly we had to shoot all natural light. Knowing this, Clay (the director) and I got a Leica mount for the RED so we could use a Leica Noctilux f/0.95 still-photo lens for super-low-light situations. That really saved us on a number of occasions where we were just shooting by fire and candlelight.
Q. Why is filming food such a challenge?
AB. Gelb set the bar really high with Jiro. I remember seeing the film in theaters when it first came out and needing to get sushi immediately after. He found a way to capture food in all its deliciousness. It helps that the chefs we feature on the show create some of the most gorgeous, mouthwatering food. It’s almost more about staying out of the way to let them do their thing.
WB. Like Adam mentioned, we had a pretty high standard set by David on Jiro. For me enjoying something delicious is such a visceral experience. In a truly transcendent culinary experience, all senses — sight, smell, feel, sound and, of course, taste — are intertwined, and that’s true whether you’re eating at a three-star restaurant or at a taco truck at 2 a.m.. So capturing that with the very limiting tool of sight (and a little sound) alone is tough. Clearly there are certain basic techniques, like using soft light, that are useful, but I think so much of it has to do with emotion, and individual narrative as well.
On Mallmann, much of the food we shot was outside on a hilltop, at sunset in Uruguay. Francis was cooking on seven different fires, and as soon as something came off the flames he’d plate it and we’d shoot it. Because the audience can’t taste what’s on screen, it was important to place it in the correct environment to feel the food. I also think the narrative aspect of seeing a dish come to fruition, from concept, to sourcing, to cooking and finally to the plate, really helps the audience connect with the dishes.
Up Your Culinary-Visual Game
“We shoot Chef’s Table on RED EPIC DRAGON Cameras with Leica Summicron-C and Leica Summilux-C prime lenses [Season One was primarily on Cooke S4’s]. Many of the ingredients and techniques are very minute. We use optical diopters in front of the prime lenses to improve our close-focus abilities and capture the details. The diopters allow us to utilize the same high-performance lenses we usually use without making any optical sacrifices.” — Adam Bricker
Q. How big is the crew on a typical shoot, and how long are you working with each chef until you think, okay, we’ve got what we need?
AB. I don’t know if we ever reach a point where we feel we’ve captured everything. We try to film as much content as we can and bring as much back to editorial as possible. It’s always a race against the clock. We work with the chefs to come up with scene ideas, and our schedule basically becomes our script for each episode.
WB. Theoretically, Chef’s Table is a single-camera show, but we always have two cameras built for different filming requirements. While we are capturing a vérité scene with one camera, the other camera might be shooting a motion-control time-lapse somewhere nearby. We keep it pretty lean from a crew standpoint though, which puts a huge stress on our AC’s [assistant cinematographers].
Q. Chef’s Table manages to show beauty and serenity in one of the most hectic and messy work environments: the kitchen. How is this accomplished?
AB. At first glance it appears chaotic, but these kitchens are actually exceedingly well-planned, highly structured environments. It has to be that way for them to produce complicated, world-class food with flawless consistency night after night. When filming in the kitchen, you quickly pick up on the rhythms. After a little while you can sense when the chef will reach for his or her tweezers to set that one final component in place. After a few hours the camera operator, the focus puller and the chef are in sync, and that’s when we’re able to capture these beautiful moments.
Q. You are working with the best chefs in the world. What is something about them that you felt didn’t translate to the show, something you couldn’t capture?
WB. I think one of the universal aspects of all the chefs I’ve had the fortune to meet and work with on this show is just how truly generous all of them have been. They are all such genuine hosts, always making sure our crew is well fed and happy. Maybe because we roll into the restaurants with such intensity for a pretty concentrated time, a genuine intimacy often develops quite quickly between our crew, the chefs and their entire team.
Q. What’s your favorite moment or story from filming for Chef’s Table?
AB. One that stands out in my mind happened during the Ana Ros shoot in Slovenia for season two. We woke up before dawn to accompany Ana and her husband on a sourcing trip for a rare cheese. Ana’s husband drove a jeep two hours up a mountain pass barely wide enough to keep all four tires on the road at once — in the dark, with no guard rail. I’m afraid of heights so I had to keep my eyes closed and hold our second AC Charlie Panian’s hand the whole drive. We reached the top of the mountain where I finally opened my eyes to be greeted by the sunrise and an idyllic cottage surrounded by mountain cows. Inside was a charming Slovenian couple and their huge cast-iron pot for making traditional Slovenian ricotta cheese. The morning sunlight was pouring in through the window as the pot steamed over a wood-burning fire. Just, wow. We filmed a pretty magical cheesemaking scene, then ate the freshest, most delicious cheese alongside hot cups of coffee. Worth the terrifying journey.
WB. Wow, that’s really a tough one. I do remember one morning in Patagonia, waking up way before sunrise to boat across Lago La Plata to film Francis fly fish. He started the fire in the blue of pre-dawn and then went out to fish. It was cold and damp and the rain started picking up right after he lit the fire. The first few minutes were intense, because if he didn’t catch anything we were all up shooting in the pouring rain for nothing. Luckily, as Francis had guaranteed, he hooked a couple brook trout. It was awesome to watch those fish be packed in glacial clay dug from the lake bed and then buried in the middle of the coals. Even though it was freezing and the rain was really starting to come down, what came out of the fire just a few minutes later was possibly the most delicious fish I’ve ever had. To be standing in the wilderness, the only people for probably a hundred miles, eating fish that had been swimming 10 minutes before, was incredible.
Q. Looking forward to the new episodes, what’s the biggest change between the first and second season?
AB. We’ve honed our process and we’re better at making the show. At the same time, we want to keep it fresh. We challenge ourselves to innovate and find new storytelling angles and visual techniques. I really enjoy working with the directors to find unique approaches to the food symphonies, highlighting the individuality of each chef; for season two, we filmed food symphonies on patterned fabric paired with the color palette of each dish, on a bridge over a running river, and in a black, reflective box.
WB. It’s a challenge to not fall into the same tropes on each episode. We try to treat each chef’s story with a unique vision while also keeping all the the episodes in the stylistic universe of Chef’s Table. Also, aerial photography! After season one the EP’s and directors really wanted to try to up the visual scope of certain episodes when possible. We’ve shot with drones on several films, and over the course of shooting the last few episodes I’ve managed to survive hanging out the side of a helicopter flying over the ocean, off the coast of Noirmoutier in western France, and out of the side of a Cessna with its back door removed, filming the Amazon River and Rainforest.
Q. What are you most excited about for the season two premiere in May?
AB. Filming season two of Chef’s Table took up the better portion of my 2015, and it’s exciting to finally be able to share it. You eat these chefs’ food, you meet them, you become friends with them. I’m excited to share their stories.
WB. I always love to hear from someone about what their favorite episode was or what they loved about this Chef, because I think the varied stories of each Chef hit people in different ways.
Q. Any tips for amateur food photographers and videographers?
AB. Keep it simple. I’ve gotten some of the best results filming the food using soft, natural daylight. I lit many of the dishes on season two just by setting them next to a window, shaping the light a little bit, maybe softening it, and adding a little more shadow with a black flag on the fill side. Oftentimes less is more.
WB. In terms of technical execution I agree with Adam: keep it simple. You can do a huge amount of the work just by shaping, cutting and controlling the quality of available light. Most of the food beauty in Uruguay was shot just by silking off the direct sun and adding a little bounced fill. Also, I’d say film what you are passionate about and you’ll find exciting unique ways of looking at your subject regardless of your budget.
Q. Favorite dish you ever filmed?
AB. Gaggan Anand in Bangkok makes a fish mixture of sea bass, vegetables and spices, dips it in a black charcoal batter, and deep fries it, producing a black fish cake resembling a piece of charcoal. It’s plated on a black piece of slate and served under a glass dome filled with charcoal smoke. We filmed the dish on a white tablecloth in Gaggan’s colonial-style dining room. The camera dollies toward the dish as Gaggan removes the lid. The white smoke escapes in slow motion to reveal the striking all-black dish. It’s so cinematic.
WB. Recently, I was with Alex Atala in the coastal Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil. We spent most of the day hiking through the jungle with a local plant guide pulling up bizarre tropical plants, strange rainforest mushrooms and herbs. Then Alex sat by a roaring river on this giant rock and cooked it in a small pan over an open fire. It was of course nothing like the complexity of the dishes in many of the restaurants we film, but tasting the unique textures and flavors of these totally foreign rainforest plants was super exciting.
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