The Creators of 'Street Food' on Why the Stakes Are Higher Than 'Chef's Table'
Brian McGinn and David Gelb chatted with Food & Wine about the making of the Netflix series.
A month after the initial announcement, Netflix’s Street Food is finally here—a visually-stunning docuseries from the team behind Chef’s Table that explores cuisines all over the world. Season one hops through Asia, putting a spotlight on crisp mung bean pancakes in Seoul, jajan pasar that sells out in Yogyakarta before 9 a.m., and chicken rice, Singapore’s beloved comfort food. With nine episodes and cities visited total, creators Brian McGinn and David Gelb hope their audience will come to appreciate the rich cultural heritage and dedication that goes into making street food—with vendors often developing and perfecting the same dish over 40, 50, even 60 years.
“We want to transport [viewers] to these incredible cities that they’ve maybe, and in some cases, most likely have not had a chance to visit. And just to feel the beautiful local culture, and heritage,” Gelb told Food & Wine. “There certainly is, you know, emotional gravitas to a lot of these stories and the kind of sacrifices and difficulties that these vendors have gone through. But they provide this really kind of fun, community feeling. It brings these communities together. And that’s kind of the feeling that we want people to have, we want the feeling of inclusion and joy, and celebration.”
Over the course of the season, the show travels to Bangkok, Thailand; Osaka, Japan; Delhi, India; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Chiayi, Taiwan; Seoul, South Korea; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; and Cebu City, Philippines. In order to scout the locations, the Street Food team went through a months-long process of building out a network of local food writers and experts, collaborating with them to pinpoint iconic dishes for each place and find the stories that needed to be told. They also filmed during monsoon season, when it was swelteringly hot and humid—an exciting challenge, McGinn said, on transporting the production value of Chef’s Table to totally different locations.
“There’s not as many guidebooks, there’s not as much written about the street food community,” McGinn says. “So one of the things that was really important for us was that we wanted to make sure we were getting local input, and to learn from the people in each city—where should we be looking?”
There are a few obvious differences from Chef’s Table right off the bat. The formal restaurant kitchen is swapped for food stalls; the soundtrack blends classical composed music with local pop hits; and each episode, rather than focusing purely on one person’s story, also talks to other masters of local street food classics, delving into the story of the city’s food culture as a whole. However, Gelb also points out that the people on Street Food are often facing much higher stakes than those on Chef’s Table. He cites a specific example from episode two, which focuses on Toyo, a vendor in Osaka.
“In one moment [Toyo] has this incredible jubilation, this beautiful energy, he’s constantly cracking jokes with his customers and it’s really quite funny,” Gelb says. “And there’s this really fun energy, but then, we start to talk about his backstory and his childhood—and you realize, wow, he was cooking just to survive. It was a matter of life and death, and just basic survival.”
Indeed, the theme of survival appears in some of the other episodes as well; in Ho Chi Minh City, vendor Truoc mastered her father’s snail recipes and made sacrifices so she could give her son a better life, per the episode's description. And in Seoul, Cho Yonsoon started selling Kalguksu (Korean knife cut noodles) to support her family after her husband’s business went under. But for all the perseverance, there are triumphs—Grace Chia Hui Lin has made her family's fish head soup famous in Chiayi, and Khun Suthep's hand-pulled bbq pork noodles are so popular in Bangkok that his customers wouldn't let him retire. Ultimately, McGinn says, while many vendors started working in food as a necessity, it led to them discovering a passion—either pushing a tradition forward or honoring it in both a personal and cultural way.
When asked if they found any favorite new meals during filming, McGinn called out snail dishes in Vietnam and, in particular, Nihari in India—a buffalo stew that has people lining up an hour before the stall opens, jostling for positions and screaming their orders before the vendor runs out. As for Gelb, he said the crew loved the drunken noodles at Jay Fai in Bangkok, calling them “pretty extraordinary.” Seeing the high energy and enthusiasm around the food, Gelb says, was his favorite part of working on the show.
If and when there’s a season two, McGinn says there are plenty of places they’d love to shine a light on. The list includes locations in Asia that they haven’t featured yet; he also mentioned Central America, Mexico, Europe, and Africa. To him and Gelb, food is a great way to explore a new place, because people become so welcoming, and it’s a way to forge connections. Gelb added that they were both inspired by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, and want to encourage viewers to get off the beaten path. The culture of street food, he says, couldn’t be more different than a culture where “people are just Postmates-ing delivery to their houses.” Instead, these vendors create a scene around them—Gelb says someone in Bangkok likened it to “there’s always a party going on.”
“Street food kind of becomes this unifier, in a lot of ways, where people of all creeds, kinds, races, all come together and eat the same food,” McGinn says. “And I think in a world that’s increasingly divided, it’s always exciting to focus on something that brings people together.”
Street Food premieres on Netflix on April 26.