Food voyeurism is one of the most prominent themes shared in media. Images of food are one of the most popular posts on social media, and food is a very prominent theme in TV and film, including documentaries. Here I will be examining the techniques used in food documentaries created by David Gelb.
American film director David Gelb is known best for his documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (20011), and more recently his series Chef’s Table (2015-). Gelb uses filming techniques unconventional to be seen in a food documentary. Referring to Jiro Dreams of Sushi (20011), American food writer Jeff Gordinier wrote in a NY Times article that “riveting high-wire action sequences are not something you tend to find in documentaries about food. Especially documentaries in which the main character is well into his 80s” (Gordinier). The use of including unexpected visuals and sequences makes the series and films Gelb has made enticing to watch.
In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (20011) I really like when Jiro’s restaurant is first shown by the food critic; the sounds in this scene feel very appropriate for introducing what the film will be revolving. Besides the talking, the only other sound is the sound of the room. There is nothing to distract you, this itself is alluring – it clues you that you should be paying attention. The sound of the room is static, it draws you into its bareness and gives you space to watch what is unfolding on the screen. I imagine that if this film were instead a constructed audio story, this sequence would be the beginning, instead of the beginning the film has which aims to intrigue the senses. The sounds in this sequence are very clear and constructive in introducing the narrative of this film.
The beginning of the film is designed very cleverly to arouse the senses. At first, each image is shown for spaced out and short moments, in between showing the black opening sequence cards. For example, it will show him taking his gloves off, then a black screen. Then it will show another view of the room, cutting to another black screen. What I find so intriguing about this opening sequence is that we are introduced to all of the sounds present in this considerably quiet room all at once at the very beginning, and visually we are introduced to the sources of the different sounds intermittently between the shots. At the very beginning there is the sound of a water fountain, but the water fountain is not revealed until after we have already seen Jiro take off his gloves and turn on the lights. The opening teasingly introduces small fractions of the space and allows you to put together the pieces of the scene very slowly. It goes on, all within the first minute, to show Jiro in artistic fragments painting a word. Jiro describes taste, a very imposing and complex thing, they probably talked for hours and hours with him before recording him saying these words.
There is a scene with Jiro’s son which shows him toasting seaweed and talking about how they prepare sushi. He is shown from so many different angles and distances, it becomes almost mesmerizing to watch him perform the repeated activity of swooshing the seaweed back and forth. They follow the 180° rule, staying on one side of him. To not make switching to a new angle too jarring to watch, shots of him further from the camera are followed by shots close up before showing a further away shot again. It seems pretty conventional editing, it is easy to understand. During a fishmarket sequence, it cuts back and forth showing Jiro talking in his restaurant, and he is yelling as if he were at the loud market himself. I find it very clever and interesting that they make the sound levels of the restaurant really loud to match the loud market sequence.
I can clearly see that Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Gelb, 2011) and the series Chef’s Table (Gelb, 2015-) are created by the same filmmaker. They both share the same documentary mode of being mostly observational. Both of these works share many of the same aesthetic approaches and sound patterns. Each episode of Chef’s Table (Gelb, 2015-) follows pretty much the same structure, and they are all a similar condensed version of the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Gelb, 2011). The film in every way seems a model for the series. I think it was intentional in the film to not show Jiro preparing sushi in the opening. The sense most intrinsic to this story is not objectified in the first minute of the film. This same technique is used often in Chef’s Table (Gelb, 2015-). The focus isn’t on the food, but on the chef behind it.
Gelb, David. Chef’s Table. 2015
Gelb, David. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. 2011
Gordinier, Jeff. Make Sure the Nigiri Doesn’t Miss Its Cue. The New York Times, 2012 https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/dining/jiro-ono-a-sushi-legend-is-captured-in-a-new-documentary.html