Fish guts are not inherently a beautiful thing. But in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, as the camera pans over an eel, speared with a knife where its neck might be, a sous chef tenderly cleans away the viscera, and it’s hard not to find yourself a little awed at the sight. That shot — and the documentary it appeared in — was the beginning of an era, and now, you can’t throw a perfectly formed nigiri without hitting a food documentary that builds 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 behind Tokyo sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a gorgeously cinematic documentary about Ono’s lifelong pursuit of sushi excellence, has had an outsized influence on the aesthetics of a certain kind of food documentary, in both television and film. From Netflix’s six-season-old documentary Chef’s Table — another Gelb creation — to David Chang’s Hulu streamer Ugly Delicious to Stanley Tucci’s CNN travelog Searching for Italy, in the post-Jiro world, food attained a distinctly cinematic sheen.
Originally titled Planet Sushi, Gelb has said that Jiro’s aesthetic was largely influenced by nature documentaries like the BBC’s Planet Earth. There’s no famous narrator in Jiro, but Planet Earth’s particular style of storytelling emerges in Jiro’s evocative Philip Glass soundtrack, and in its attention to the good, the bad, and the ugly in its subject matter: the life cycle of a sushi dinner, from the chaos of the Tsukiji Fish Market to the final glistening pieces of nigiri. Its expansive cinematography emphasizes long, almost sensual shots that linger as chefs slice ruby-red ahi tuna and massage octopus until it is perfectly tender, making human actions feel as organic or instinctive as a whale gracefully gliding through the ocean. “We try to use all the tools of cinema, from sound, music, cinematography, all these things to draw the audience into the character in the way that any film would,” Gelb told Deadline of his perspective in 2019. The expansive, sweeping shots feel like a deliberate attempt to draw parallels to the beauty of the natural world, inspiring introspection — or even awe.
Before Jiro, food documentaries tended to have a more straightforward approach: Think Morgan Spurlock trying to survive eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month (Super Size Me) and preachy documentaries exposing the ills of factory farming (Food, Inc.) or extolling the virtues of plant-based diets (Forks Over Knives). Gelb’s film is as indulgent as its subject is ascetic, encouraging the viewer to drool over sweeping shots of the perfect fish, the indulgent look into how Ono’s chefs intricately prepare rice, and, of course, the stunning final product. It’s a film that makes you want to eat.
Jiro arrived at a very specific moment in food history. Following the rise of Anthony Bourdain — No Reservations premiered in 2005, and The Layover and Parts Unknown would follow in 2011 and 2013 — the world of restaurant obsessives went from a niche on forums like Chowhound to fully becoming a part of mainstream culture. In another era, Jiro might have been a minor cult classic, but it arrived at a moment when there was an audience hungry for more insight into not only where to find the best food in the world, but how it’s made and the people who make it. Jiro was a phenomenon upon its release, with the New York Times describing the film’s cinematography as “lush” and “spellbinding.”
A few years later, Jiro hit Netflix, inspiring a whole new crowd of food and film fans to indulge in Gelb’s look at the world’s first sushi restaurant to earn three Michelin stars. Netflix helped push Jiro and its aesthetic globally in other ways, too: In 2015, Joshua David Stein wrote that streamers like Netflix and its competitors “swept [food] up in the auteur lens” of its scripted programming in shows like House of Cards and Better Call Saul: “As the televised aesthetic in general becomes more refined and more cinematic,” he noted, “food is swept up in the frame.” In the world of reality and documentary, Gelb’s next major project, 2015’s Chef’s Table, would take the look even more mainstream. Chef’s Table, Netflix’s first-ever reality series, celebrated food across the globe — and the people who make it possible — in a sweeping fashion; less a traditional documentary and more what Stein calls “impressionistic character sketches of the chefs in question.”
In its first four series, Chef’s Table focused exclusively on the kind of chefs that, like Jiro, extol the virtues of perfectionism and obsession: Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, and Magnus Nilsson. In later seasons, it showcased chefs whose work may not be Michelin-recognized, but who have outsize influence in their communities or regional foodways, including iconic pitmasters Tootsie Tomanetz and Rodney Scott. Crucially, both styles of restaurant receive the same aesthetic treatment: In Gelb’s world, all food made with care is worthy of stunning cinematography. After establishing his distinct visuals at a range of restaurants, Gelb zoomed out, taking his approach to Street Food, a series he also created for Netflix, which explores everything from Taiwanese goat’s head soup served in stalls to brisket in Texas in equally opulent detail.
Now, streaming services are positively replete with shows mimicking Gelb’s style, to varying degrees of success. There’s Ugly Delicious, which employs a similarly cinematic style to explore cultural crossover in curries, crawfish, and steak. There’s the luxurious shots of pasta being rolled, cheese bubbling on a margherita pizza, and Amalfi Coast views in CNN’s Searching for Italy. The television adaptation of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a shining example of this new generation of slicked-up, super-stylish food documentaries. In treating the preparation of food like the wilds of nature, Gelb brought a new gravitas to the genre that would spawn a massive interest in food as a serious documentary subject for serious filmmakers.
The format has also evolved over the decade. Improvements in camera and film-editing technology mean that each dish looks more true to life, more luxuriously detailed, than before. “It presents a challenge to me, because now everybody is shooting with the high-end cameras and lenses,” Gelb told the Ringer in 2021. “Now that’s ubiquitous, so we have to pursue substance and story. That’s the only place to go. I can’t cover it up with just beautiful cinematography.” Most crucially, as Gelb suggests, food television has made at least some effort to include the voices of women and people of color, which to that point had been largely ignored. Where Jiro introduced Japanese sushi culture to mainstream America, shows like High on the Hog and Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi are doing the same with Black barbecue, Gullah Geechee food, and other culinary traditions.
Thanks to its dominant influence, watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi for the first time in 2022 might make it feel a little dated, and not just because of Ono’s policy of serving “older women customers” smaller portions of fish to make the meal move along more smoothly. It’s just that so much of what follows looks a whole lot like Jiro.
Lisa Kogawa is a freelance illustrator based in Los Angeles.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.