Why the Documentary Now! spoof is the perfect homage to David Gelb.

By Max Bonem
Updated May 24, 2017
Documentary Now! Juan Likes Rice & Chicken
Credit: © Rhys Thomas/IFC

There is no one person more responsible for the aesthetic of the modern food documentary than David Gelb, creator of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table. His propensity for drama, along with his signature style, makes his work very easy to identify, even to a non-film nerd. As an homage, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers created a parody of Gelb’s popular documentaries with an episode of their own show, Documentary Now!, entitled, “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.” Here are the 10 best parodied moments from the episode.

The episode begins with a whimsical voice over.

The first thing you hear in, “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” is Juan uttering the line, “I like to dream.” As is the case in quite a few Chef’s Table installments (Francis Mallmann, Grant Achatz and Vladimir Mukhin come to mind), we’re immediately met by the subject’s self-seriousness. Juan goes on to elaborate about what he dreams about, including being a spaceman (that part reminds us that this is parody).

The restaurant is incredibly remote.

Early on, we learn that Juan’s restaurant is located 137 km outside of Bogotá, Colombia and requires an insane amount of work to reach. While many of the restaurants featured in Chef’s Table are located in urban centers, this particular reference applies to restaurants like Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken and Ana Roš’ Hiša Franko, both of which are located in pristine, isolated environments.

We see old photos of the chef.

While Juan is being introducing, both by himself and by Bill Hader’s restaurant critic character, photos of Juan from both his childhood and as a young adult are shown onscreen to explain where Juan came from. This is a common sequence in every single episode of Chef’s Table and is perfectly placed in the Documentary Now! farce.

Kitchen activity appears in hyperlapse.

Another one of Gelb’s signature techniques, the hyperlapse, appears when we see Juan’s three-man kitchen. This is a direct pull from every episode of Chef’s Table.

Jonathan Gold and David Chang make appearances.

No episode of Chef's Table would be complete without visits from culinary world stars.

We see super-close-ups of the dishes as they’re being prepared.

In “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” the close-ups focus on butter being piped on top of rice and chicken being massaged by hand, but this shot style is used for any and all cuisines in both Chef's Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

There's a strained relationship between father and son.

Juan’s son Arturo (Armisen) is his father’s apprentice and since Arturo does not take well to the kitchen, you can sense quite a bit of tension between the two of them as Juan ponders his own retirement and mortality. While this type of relationship is seen in many episodes of Chef’s Table, it’s more clearly on display in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The major underlying theme in Gelb’s breakout documentary is the relationship between Jiro and his sons, one of whom stays by his side as an apprentice while the other sets out on his own, just like in “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.”

“I demand a lot from everyone. That's the price of perfection.”

There’s a moment in nearly every episode of Chef’s Table where the chef touches on how hard he works his staff. You can see it in the episodes that center on Dan Barber, Magnus Nilsson and Vladimir Mukhin just to name a few. Of course, the same happens in “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” when Juan just says, “I demand a lot from everyone. That's the price of perfection.” It’s as if the Documentary Now! team is winking at the audience, knowing that viewers are waiting to check this off the list.

Combining slow motion with classical music.

Another signature Gelb technique. The best example here is when Juan explains his chicken tenderization technique, which utilizes an air cannon to blast the chicken breasts against the kitchen wall. The overture in the background really pulls the scene together.

The subject learns a lesson and decides to slow down.

As with so many chefs featured in Gelb’s work, Juan learns by the end of the Documentary Now! episode that he needs to slow down (after suffering his fourth heart attack) and hand control to Arturo, even if Arturo is not up to the challenge. While nervous at first, Arturo rises to the occasion and seamlessly takes over the restaurant, conquering his fear of chickens and leaving his passive interest in cooking behind.