Fish guts are not inherently a beautiful thing. But in Jiro dreams of sushi, as the camera pans to an eel, pierced with a knife where its neck might be, a sous chef tenderly cleanses the viscera, and it’s hard not to be a little impressed by the sight. That shot – and the documentary it appeared in – ushered in an era, and now you can’t cast a perfectly shaped nigiri without stumbling across a food documentary that draws on the influence of Jiro.
In 2012, David Gelb was a little-known filmmaker and few people outside of Japan had heard of Jiro Ono, the chef of Tokyo sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. But Jiro dreams of sushi, a beautifully cinematic documentary about Ono’s pursuit of sushi excellence, has had an outsized influence on the aesthetics of a certain type of food documentary, in television and film. From Netflix’s six-season documentary Chef’s table – another Gelb creation – to David Chang’s Hulu streamer Ugly Delicious to Stanley Tucci’s CNN travel diary In search of Italyin the post-Jiro world, food has achieved a distinctly cinematic sheen.
Original title Sushi PlanetGelb said that JiroThe aesthetic of has been heavily influenced by nature documentaries like the BBC’s. Earth. There is no famous narrator in Jirobut Earth’particular style of storytelling emerges in at Jiro evocative soundtrack by Philip Glass, and in its attention to the good, the bad and the ugly in its subject matter: the life cycle of a sushi diner, from the chaos of Tsukiji’s fish market to the last shreds of glistening nigiri. Its expansive cinematography emphasizes long, almost sensuous shots that linger as chefs slice ruby red ahi tuna and massage octopus until perfectly tender, making human actions as organic or instinctive as ever. than a whale gliding gracefully through the ocean. “We try to use all the tools of cinema, sound, music, cinematography, all those things to draw the audience into the character like any movie would,” Gelb said Deadline from his perspective in 2019. The sweeping, sweeping shots look like a deliberate attempt to draw parallels with the beauty of the natural world, inspiring introspection – or even awe.
Before Jirofood documentaries tended to take a simpler approach: think of Morgan Spurlock trying to survive by eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month (super size me) and moralizing documentaries exposing the evils of factory farming (Food, Inc.) or extolling the merits of plant-based diets (Forks on knives). Gelb’s film is as indulgent as its subject matter is ascetic, encouraging the viewer to drool over sweeping shots of the perfect fish, the indulgent look at how Ono’s chefs intricately prepare rice and, of course, the great end product. It’s a movie that makes you want to eat.
Jiro arrived at a very specific moment in the history of food. After the rise of Anthony Bourdain — No reservations created in 2005, and The stopover and Unknown parts would follow in 2011 and 2013 – the world of restaurant obsessives went from niche to forums like Chowhound fully integrate into the dominant culture. At another time, Jiro It may have been a little cult classic, but it came at a time when there was an audience hungry to know not just where to find the best food in the world, but also how it’s made and who makes it. Jiro was a phenomenon when it came out, with the New York Times describing the film’s cinematography as “lush” and “spellbinding”.
Several years later, Jiro hit Netflix, inspiring a whole new crowd of food and movie fans to indulge in Gelb’s look at the world’s first sushi restaurant to win three Michelin stars. Netflix helped push Jiro and its global aesthetic in other ways too: In 2015, Joshua David Stein wrote that streamers like Netflix and its competitors “have swept [food] in the auteur lens” of its scripted programming in shows like Card castle and You better call Saul: “As the television aesthetic in general becomes more polished and more cinematic,” he noted, “food is swept into the frame.” In the world of reality and documentary, Gelb’s next big project, 2015 Chef’s tablewould take the look even more mainstream. Chef’s tableby Netflix very first reality series, celebrated food around the world – and the people who make it possible – in a radical way; less a traditional documentary and more what Stein calls “impressionistic character sketches of the chiefs in question.”
In its first four series, Chef’s table focused exclusively on the kind of chefs who, like Jiro, extol the virtues of perfectionism and obsession: Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura and Magnus Nilsson. In later seasons, it featured chefs whose work may not be recognized by Michelin, but who have outsized influence in their communities or regional eating habits, including iconic pitmasters Tootsie Tomanetz and Rodney Scott. Basically, both restaurant styles get the same aesthetic treatment: in Gelb’s world, any carefully prepared food is worthy of stunning cinematography. After establishing his distinct visuals across a range of restaurants, Gelb zoomed out, taking his approach to street fooda series he also created for Netflix, which explores everything from Taiwanese goat’s head soup served in stalls to beef brisket in Texas in equally opulent detail.
Now, streaming services are full of shows mimicking Gelb’s style, with varying degrees of success. There are Ugly Delicious, which uses a similar cinematic style to explore cultural crossover in curries, crawfish and steak. There are the luxurious shots of rolled pasta, the bubbling cheese on a margherita pizza and the views of the Amalfi Coast in CNN’s In search of Italy. Samin Nosrat’s television adaptation Salt, fat, acid, heat is a shining example of this new generation of slicked-back, super-stylish food documentaries. By treating food preparation as the wilderness, Gelb brought a new gravitas to the genre that would spawn massive interest in food as a serious documentary subject for serious filmmakers.
The format also evolved over the decade. Improvements in camera and film editing technology mean that every dish looks more true to life, more luxuriously detailed than ever before. “It’s a challenge for me because now everyone is shooting with high-end cameras and lenses.” Gelb told the Ringer in 2021. “Now it’s all over the place, so we have to look for substance and story. It’s the only place to go. I can’t cover it with just beautiful cinematography. More importantly, as Gelb suggests, the food television made at least some effort to include the voices of women and people of color, which until then had been largely ignored. Jiro introduced Japanese sushi culture to mainstream American audiences, shows like High on the pork and Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi do the same with black barbecue, Gullah Geechee food and other culinary traditions.
Thanks to its dominating influence, watching Jiro dreams of sushi for the first time in 2022, it might feel a little dated, and not just because of Ono’s policy of serving smaller portions of fish to “older female customers” to keep the meal going rolls out more easily. It’s just that much of what follows looks a lot like Jiro.
Disclosure: David Chang produces shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff are involved in the production of these shows, and this does not impact Eater’s coverage.