Behind the scenes of Chef’s Table

Behind the scenes of Netflix's Chef’s Table

by Tom Shingler 16 February 2017

As the latest season of Netflix’s beautiful food documentary series is released, Tom Shingler talks to creator David Gelb and one of the featured chefs Tim Raue to find out how much work goes into each episode.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

If you haven’t yet seen it, Chef’s Table is a fascinating insight into the world’s best cooks. Each episode focuses on an acclaimed chef with a particularly interesting story, combining beautiful cinematography with in-depth interviews to explore their lives and discover how they came to create such inspiring food. Created by David Gelb – who rose to fame with his documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which looked at the life of Jiro Ono, the world’s greatest sushi chef – the show is now in its fourth season, all of which are available to watch on Netflix.

The latest season features six new chefs from all over the world, including Peru’s Virgilio Martínez (Central), South Korea’s Jeong Kwan (Chunjinam Hermitage) and Russia’s Vladimir Mikhin (White Rabbit). But one of the most compelling episodes features Tim Raue, who runs the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Tim Raue in Berlin, Germany. Focusing on his troubled upbringing and how he escaped a life of street gangs and poverty to become a world-renowned chef, the episode then goes on to look at how he embraced Asian cuisine and implemented his own, inimitable spin on its vibrant flavours. I caught up with Tim to see what it’s like being the subject of an episode, then talked to creator David about the processes he uses to dig deep inside the life of a chef.

The chef


Tim Raue

‘The Chef’s Table team called to ask if I wanted to be involved and I immediately said yes. Having three Michelin stars or being on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list bring you guests and attention, but then there’s Chef’s Table which every chef watches and dreams about. I’ve heard from colleagues that their restaurants were booked up maybe three or four weeks in advance, but if they’re featured on the show then it shoots up to four or five months, so it impacts your business in a huge way.

‘I was totally surprised when they asked me to be part of it. I’d met David six years ago when he was premiering Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and I was tasked with preparing a four-course dinner inspired by the movie. David said he chose me because I could perform in front of the camera, the artistry of my food and my story – going from being a ghetto boy, abused by my father and brought up in poverty to being a highly awarded two-starred chef.

‘Every episode of Chef’s Table focuses on a turning point in the world of the subject. In mine there were two; one where I left my tough childhood behind me and jumped at the chance to become a chef, and then again in 2007 when I completely changed the way I cooked. Back then I was mixing French techniques, regional German produce, Spanish avant-garde cooking and a few Asian flavours. I thought it was pure shit, but I won awards for it. I started looking in the mirror and seeing this white guy who was obsessed with Asian food, so I began inventing my own style that combined Cantonese techniques, Japanese precision and Thai flavours. That made me more successful than I ever thought I could be.

‘I was told that filming would take eleven days, from morning until night, and that I had to share absolutely everything with them. That was important for me because I didn’t want to be seen as a celebrity and I always want the press to respect my private life. But then the show isn’t about how to cook or even the food; it’s about a person, my emotion and what makes me different to other chefs.

Tim Raue
Tim found the experience of filming over the eleven days seriously hard work – but he loved the end result
Tim Raue
His embracing of Asian flavours when he had previously combined French, German and Spanish was one of the main reasons creator David Gelb wanted to feature him

‘On the first day me and the director Abigail Fuller didn’t really see eye to eye. I’m a pragmatic person; you have to give me a ticket that says ‘one turbot’ on it and then I’ll cook you one turbot. But she was never that straightforward, and because I have a really tight schedule running nine restaurants working up to eighteen hours a day six days a week, it was like the team were completely taking over my life. However, once me and Abigail talked about how my life works and how she wanted to put the episode together everything was much easier.

‘I did around eight hours of interviews which was condensed down to less than forty minutes, but I’m really happy with what came out at the end. They focus on the fact that it’s only me in my world, but of course that’s not true – there are hundreds of employees and people like my business partner who make everything possible. But the series always focuses on just one single chef, and I like that a lot. It shows the straighter side of my personality, although I think I’m missing the charming part a bit!

‘The actual filming was a complete pain in the arse. They’re so close to you – the only time you get to yourself is the three or four times a day you go to the toilet. But I like that because it makes everything really authentic. Abigail was brilliant but so was Adam, the cameraman; whatever he asked me to do I did because he had such a good eye. He’d say ‘Tim, can you look like you’re really focused on that vegetable you’re cooking?’ and it would look amazing. I completely trusted him and I loved the episode when I saw it.’

The creator


David Gelb

‘I had a wonderful experience making Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Once the film was out I met Brian McGinn [executive producer of Chef’s Table] and we thought it would be great to make a series looking at other chefs who have compelling stories and make beautiful food in other parts of the world. Food shows usually have a host of some kind and tend to focus on how things are cooked or pit chefs against one another; a show where the chefs tell their own stories had never been done before, and we were lucky Netflix believed in the idea.

‘In every episode we dig deep and look at the personal journey a chef has gone through. Ten hours of interviewing is fairly normal for each episode, as that allows us to penetrate deeply and go beyond the answers that chefs normally give in interviews. We’re extremely grateful that the chefs give us the time to do this – it’s an intensive shoot and they’re already incredibly busy. I think the popularity of Chef’s Table within the industry is often what helps us convince them to work with us and we’re incredibly lucky that the wider public are interested in the same things we are.

‘I’m one of four directors that work on the show but I’ve only done around six episodes myself. My job is to be a sort of guide – I’m sure if I directed every episode myself the series would become quite boring. We start editing immediately after we return from a shoot and it’s roughly a two-month process, which is quite quick. It took me a year to edit Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but that’s because I was working by myself. On Chef’s Table, we have an incredible team that don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. Just like a chef who has cooks in the kitchen who maybe don’t get the recognition they deserve, we have filmmakers and story producers and researchers that contribute greatly to helping the director put the whole thing together.

‘Choosing which chefs to feature is hard. There are so many who could have wonderful films made about them, but we specifically look for those who have an original vision that no one has had before. We’re interested in telling an origin story, so the chefs have to be willing to talk about everything from their childhood onwards. That helps us pinpoint the turning points in their lives that let them achieve the creative feats in their careers. They also have to be able to tell their story compellingly on camera because we don’t have a host to guide them – we need chefs that are natural storytellers who can show that their food is an expression of their lives.

David Gelb
David and the other Chef's Table directors travel the world to uncover the personal stories of chefs, including Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun from South Korea
David Gelb
The shots of food, such as Tim's wasabi langoustine, are beautiful – but the episodes focus more on the chef than their dishes

‘Every chef is different, so we have to be quite flexible in how we approach and accommodate each one. It’s very much a collaboration between us and them; we’d never go in and tell a chef what their episode is going to be about. Chefs are the masters of their own kitchens and they’re used to giving direction, so we need to approach them with the proper reverence and gratefulness. Every one of our directors has their own style of working but each needs to do a great deal of research beforehand – we need to know everything that’s been made public about a chef’s life before we start working with them, and I think that’s how they can sense our respect for what they do.

‘We always go in with an idea of what we think the episode is going to be about, but that inevitably changes once we start talking to the chef. When Tim talks about the interviews being intense I think that’s because it’s almost like a therapy session – the chefs aren’t used to being interviewed for such a long time, and we often get to the point where they’re talking about things they haven’t talked about publicly before. In Tim’s case, his rough upbringing was definitely an important factor, and I think it’s inspiring to hear from someone who was headed down the wrong path and chose to do something productive rather than destructive. That, combined with the artistry of his food and his bombastic, compelling personality, is why we thought he’d be a great subject for Chef’s Table.

‘I hope we get to create more episodes in the future – they’re so much fun to make. We get to travel the world and hang out in the restaurants we want to eat at. We’re looking to expand the breadth of the series in terms of the types of chefs we profile; in previous seasons we almost exclusively film in expensive, high-end restaurants, but this time we featured a ramen chef, a Buddhist nun who doesn’t even have a restaurant and Nancy Silverton, who owns a pizzeria as well as her fine dining restaurant. We want to have a more diverse cast of chefs and include more styles of cooking. We’re also thinking about British chefs – I can’t give you any names but we’re well aware there are wonderful things happening in food in the UK and it’s something we’re definitely looking into.’