“My approach has been, ‘Let’s make a movie about a great character,’” says filmmaker David Gelb, the creator and executive producer of the acclaimed Netflix series Chef’s Table. More than anyone else in recent memory, Gelb — who rose to prominence with the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi — has successfully drawn audiences into the emotional landscape of chefs, and in the process, weaved food documentaries into the cultural landscape. Part of that success lies in Chef’s Table’s savvy subject selection, which in the past has included Francis Mallmann, Jeong Kwan, and Massimo Bottura. “When we’re selecting a character, we think about, ‘Could you make a scripted film about this person?’” Gelb told me back in May.
At the time, he was speaking about a casting process that had come under fire when the Chef’s Table: Pastry’s lineup — featuring three men and one woman, all white — was revealed. As many pointed out, the series to date featured mostly white male figures; the outcry led to many publicly ask, “How do we fix food TV’s diversity problem?” while others developed tools designed to help fix it.
And it seems as though Gelb and Netflix heeded the calls: This week, Chef’s Table announced that several people of color, almost all of whom are women, would be subjects in Seasons 5 and 6. Season 5, dropping on September 28, will feature Cristina Martinez, Bo Songvisava, Musa Dağdeviren, and Albert Adrià. Season 6, airing sometime in 2019, highlights Mashama Bailey, Sean Brock, Asma Khan, and Dario Cecchini. More than past seasons, there’s potential for a smart, layered, and enlightening exploration into the context in which each exists as chefs.
In that May conversation, Gelb admitted that he and his co-executive producer, Brian McGinn, would select the most dramatic or cinematic stories out of a large list of researched names, and that they didn’t think too hard about representation and diversity. “(It) was never a conscious decision on our part,” Gelb says. “But it’s something we see now that has happened.” Now that Gelb and McGinn have become more aware of their decision-making process — conscious or otherwise — we have a measurable level of progress. For example: There has never been a black chef featured on Chef’s Table, and now Bailey, whose Savannah, Georgia, restaurant the Grey was Eater’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year, will have the opportunity to take center stage.
But this progress, while exciting, does not negate the conversation that preceded it: It further proves how much it needs to be had.
I’ve been a producer for just over a year, and while most people are vaguely familiar with the role of a director, the “producer” title confounds. This is fair, given the range of responsibilities that are tucked under it: a producer can be anyone from the person who funded the entire project, to the researcher, to the person stuck in a tiny room with the editor. It can seem like a catch-all term for the person who has input of any kind.
For most producers, the dream is to tell the stories you’re most interested in. Ideally, autonomy, limitless funds, and complete creative control leads to the exact end product you envisioned. In the real world, factors like logistics, costs, access, and how an idea fits with a company’s brand all come into play. These are all addressed during the pitch process, during which researchers and associate producers present ideas that are either approved or rejected by executive producers. Production work is the machine that keeps tinkering at a low hum, and it’s only noticed if it stops working properly. But many producers don’t get into this work to be applauded — we do it because we love storytelling, the act of finding a story thread and spinning it into a beautiful visual narrative.
The reality is that a lot of this work, which is intricate and susceptible to failure, can happen in a silo: You become so enveloped in the granular details that resolve into a final product, that you don’t realize how it looks once all the pieces have fallen into place. It can exceed expectations, fall short — or miss the mark completely.
The silo isn’t just personal. When a production team like that of Chef’s Table has a pitch process for who they want to feature, the first line of attack is consulting the experts that already exist — food critics, writers, other chefs, reporters, Michelin, World’s 50 Best. This creates a secondary silo that plays out on-screen: Of the 42 Chef’s Table talking heads so far, 24 have been white men, 12 have been white women, and five have been men of color. Up until now, there has never been a woman of color in that “expert” role.
But more importantly, a process that’s partially designed for efficiency also emerges as one that keeps dissenting voices and opinions to a minimum. It’s a process that’s prone to rehashing the familiar stories of the past: The food world and its obsession with “male genius” narrative goes back decades, and is familiar enough to the producer to feel like a “sure bet.”
I understand how opting for the smoothest possible route to get a project done saves time and alleviates a great deal of stress. On our team, it’s a constant struggle to think about what is equal parts feasible and creatively ideal. That push-pull is always on my mind: It’s a part of my creative process, and integral to my decisions regarding what to pitch, and what is worth fighting for. In my experience, the reward of seeing that pay off has always been worth it.
Cinematic narratives are an integral part of storytelling. Showing moments where a character is actively searching for something, hoping to prove or gain something, or risking losing everything creates tension and drama. Those moments capture the subject’s deepest insecurities, most influential memories, and (if they’re not media-trained) even their ugly side. They allow the viewer to see themselves in a subject. This is how producers (and viewers) define what’s compelling.
No food documentary follows this trope more than Chef’s Table. In its now-familiar style and structure, one chef is the focus of each episode. There are two or three talking heads — other respected chefs or esteemed food writers — that speak to that character’s skills, story, reception, and personality. The penultimate arc showcases standout dishes that reflect or represent the preceding points, shown in beautiful visuals.
Race and gender — two things that are hindrances or helpful to someone’s employment success, are unfortunate but real tension points that often act as roadblocks, and would naturally fit into the criterion of what makes a “compelling narrative.” But until this recent casting announcement, those arcs were largely absent from Chef’s Table: As many pointed out, only five out of the first 26 subjects were people of color. Much of the argument for more representation on-screen, then, is not just about seeing the face or filling a quota — but about who gets to have their narrative qualify as compelling “enough.”
Gelb admitted to me back in May that both he and food media in general have to “dig deeper and look further beyond what’s presented in front of us.” The new cast demonstrates that Gelb and his team have attempted to do just that, and like many instances where a call for representation is met, the fix has been easy and certainly something to celebrate — albeit embarrassing that it took this long.
Unfortunately, this process is all too familiar to people of color; spending time and effort educating their white peers. “I feel like white people, white men especially, have the privilege of not having to worry about diversity, because they are not victims of a lack of diversity,” says Quincy Ledbetter, video director at HuffPost. When others call them out, Ledbetter says, “It’s like a blindside to them, because they don’t even think about that. They don’t have to.”
Ledbetter, on the other hand, has had to think about it plenty. As a black creative in the world of video production, he’s been in the stark minority. Although he is content with the diversity of the team he’s on now, landing a staff position took him 15 years of freelancing, and he found that the biggest lack of staff diversity has been in leadership. This, he says, has been a constant in his past workplaces. Even when diversity is at the forefront of the hiring process, it still isn’t enough. At one of his previous roles, he recounts a story where the company was looking to hire an editorial director and a host. “The communication to everyone in the company was, ‘For this host, we need a person of color, we need diversity. It would be great if they were LBGTQ as well.’ That was not the same communication for the leadership position they were looking for.”
For a field that prides itself on being innovative and different, the creative industry suffers from the same, uninspiring ills as almost every other field: with fewer people of color in decision-making positions.
Back in the spring, when I asked Gelb what actions he was hoping to take to ensure that Chef’s Table would provide a richer, diverse viewing experience, he said his team would be more cognizant. “It will make for a better show,” he says, “and it will be a better representation of what the food world should be.” Gelb confirmed that he would be looking closer at not just diversity in front of the camera, but behind it, too. When asked at what level, he answered that they would be looking at the staffing as a whole.
To that end, the next eight episodes feature the work of two women directors, Zia Mandviwalla and Abigail Fuller; Fuller has directed two previous episodes, while Mandviwalla’s episode marks her first for the series. I reached out to Gelb to see if there were any other behind-the-scenes updates to report and will share those if and when they become available.
Producers and storytellers often acknowledge that we have the power to dictate who gets attention, who gets empathy. The underlying danger — and one that should constantly be on the mind of producers — is that the absence of a story leads to the absence of humanization. All producers, from up-and-comers like me to seasoned ones at Netflix, are romantics that breathlessly talk about needing to tell stories that aren’t being told. Commitment to “the story,” but failing to lead in finding them, is a disservice not only to the the viewers, but to what creative production hopes to achieve.
As someone who has also critiqued the lack of diversity in Chef’s Table, the Season 5 and 6 announcements impressed me. Many of the subjects are on my dream list, and I am truly excited to watch these episodes. I’m of Turkish descent, and Musa Dağdeviren’s episode gives me an opportunity to examine the cuisine I was raised on, and to watch it as I bond with my parents. Mashama Bailey’s episode reaffirms black Americans’ rightful place in the American culinary narrative, as will Cristina Martinez’s for Mexican Americans. Bo Songvisava’s episode demonstrates how truly global Chef’s Table’s production is, and how necessary it is to indulge in that luxury. The fact that the first Brit to be featured on Chef’s Table is a Desi woman, Asma Khan, gives authority to a community that has only ever been brushed under a colonial carpet.
I wish I wasn’t this impressed, or excited, to hear these stories, because I wish it hadn’t taken this long for it to be a reality. As we continue the conversation about diversity in food media, we talk about structural changes — namely, hiring processes. All eyes are on the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle in their searches for new food critics, and many calls have been made to have a person of color fill the legacy roles. Internally, food organizations like the historically sexist and Euro-centric World’s 50 Best are attempting a change of pace, too. Whether or not this is posturing cannot be answered, but it is exasperating that it took a bout of public beration for it to be addressed.
Even if we give Gelb — and many like him — the benefit of the doubt, do we want to educate people that should have known better, or do we want to uplift those that already know? When will we graduate from merely trying to be better, and instead expect it? As established filmmakers play catch up, those that are hoping to be heard will wait with their stories.
Pelin Keskin is an associate producer at Eater.
Editor: Erin DeJesus