10 AMAZING FOOD DOCUMENTARIES THAT AREN'T CHEF'S TABLE
Growing up in a Korean-Jewish household means food has always been such a big part of my life. Greetings in Korean literally means "you look healthy" and I was told to "eat a lot" while my grandmother scooped an extra paddle-full of rice onto my plate and sent me toward the platters of food –and oh I absolutely did eat a lot. My Jewish grandparents always had snacks on the table by the time we got to their house, making sure to top up when the bowl was down to half the fill. Our days revolved around how long the brisket was going to need in the oven and how many hello dollies there were left in the day.
As I've grown over the years, my love of food hasn't changed at all. I enjoy eating bowls full of soft tofu stew, munching the crispiest of latkes, and the most exciting times have been when I'm introduced to a completely new food. We're surrounded by so many restaurants and in the age of social media everyone has become a food critic. I'm certainly guilty of Instagramming an amazing meal, and I like to look up to the pros when getting inspired by food.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Chef's Table, but I'm not including it here because it just seemed too obvious. If you're a fan of the series, you'll probably love these other beautifully shot and consciously created films/series. Here are ten of my absolute favorite, mouth-watering, inspiring documentaries on food around the world and the brilliant people behind the dishes.
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
1. The Mind of A Chef (2012)
The Public Broadcasting Channel and producer Anthony Bourdain have created an insightful documentary series that dives deep into the lives of fantastic chefs such as David Chang, Sean Brock, and April Bloomfield, just to name a few. It's a less esoteric look inside their worlds of cooking, which makes it all the more relatable. Though the chefs each have their own styles, they're all tied in their love for making truly delicious eats.
2. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
This was one of the first documentaries that started it all. The cinematography is beautiful and it shows Japan as an idyllic place to experience food made with love and care. We follow the life of Jiro Ono and his sons in their daily lives as they run their 3 Michelin star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. The restaurant itself has a capacity of 10 people, and to get a seat for a 20-course, $300 pp meal, you've got to call over a month in advance. This one will have you booking a flight to Tokyo in a flash.
3. Cooked (2016)
If you like knowing the science behind your food, look no further. I read several of his books back in university while I was taking my Urban Farming course (yes, that was a real thing), and it changed my relationship with food in general. Some of my favorites are The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food (now a Netflix Documentary), and Cooked: A Natural History of Food Transformation, of which this documentary series is based on.
Starting with Fire, he delves into the Australian outback to see how people have charred native lizards for sustenance and then traveled through to the today's barbecuing techniques. In water, he goes to India to address the growing issue of processed foods in today's day. The third episode, air, Pollan explores the glutinous properties of the artisan bread industry. Finally, earth tackles something near and dear to my heart, fermentation. Throughout the series, you follow Pollan and learn that he's a person that's so deeply rooted in the history and science of food and by the end, you'll be wholeheartedly sold on eating local and eating seasonally.
4. City of Gold (2015)
Most Angeleans know that food in the city is synonymous with Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. There's not a restaurant you know of that he hasn't been to. Not only does he help us out with his yearly 101 Best Restaurants Map where you can see at least 20 restaurants you didn't know about, but you can read his beautifully written reviews in the LA times and hear him talk about food fairly regularly on KCRW's Good Food podcast. To delve deeper into the underbelly of LA's food scene, look to Gold and he'll show you the way.
5. Ugly Delicious (2018)
Previous star of The Mind of a Chef and the brains of Momofuku, David Chang and, James Beard award-winning food writer, Peter Meehan explore the food scene of staple foods like pizza and tacos over 8 episodes. Much like other food documentaries, they go to the fanciest of artisan shops, but in addition to their ostentatious food finds, they hit up a Domino's and a food convention to look at the every-day side of food.
6. Three Stars (2010)
The Michelin Guide is one of the most famous food ranking systems in the world, and getting three stars is often the pinnacle of a chef's career. This documentary covers nine restaurants and their chefs including René Redzepi, Elena Arzak, and Hideki Ishikawa, in their journeys toward earning all three of their Michelin stars. It's a great watch if you're into the high-class dining world.
7. Bugs (2016)
Young chefs and researchers Josh Evans and Ben Reade are head of the Danish Food Lab and they explore the world in search of the most nutritious bugs to serve as protein alternatives as we threaten our conventional meat sources of date. You squirm as they eat live insects, but you'll be amazed when you see some of their creations. Maybe by the end of the movie you'll be up for eating a bug or two.
8. The Search for General Tso (2015)
As an Asian-American, it's interesting to see that Asian food is becoming more popular. Chinese-American food is one of the oldest and is such a staple in "American" cuisine. This is a great look at the multi-cultural nature of the states and how immigrants have adapted to appeal to the Caucasian palate.
9. Somm (2013)
Wine-lovers unite. I love a good bottle or two and you can see the wine nerds show you up in their love and knowledge of the holy drink. While you follow the adventure of several aspiring sommeliers, their self-important airs get a bit overwhelming, but the ridiculousness of some of their wine descriptions make it worth the ride; I've never heard anyone relate a glass of wine to "a freshly opened can of tennis balls" or "tar." I loved Somm because it taught me how to properly taste a glass of wine and it made me think about the types of wine and where the grapes have come from.
10. Special Mention: Rotten (2018)
The list of documentaries I've listed above all have a sense of inspiration and I wanted to leave it as such because I believe that food should be celebrated and not seen as a bad thing. That said, Rotten was a serious look at the corruptions, crimes, and controversies that surround the global food market. It's a not-so-gentle-reminder that we should be conscious of where our food comes from and to support those that attempt to provide healthy food choices in a world where cheap goods are king. Zero Point Zero Inc., the same people who produced Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, gives you 6-episodes covering the topics of Garlic, Honey, dairy, and more. Definitely worth a watch.