‘We would love to come and make Chef’s Table in Ireland’

Filmmaker Brian McGinn talks about his hit Netflix show and his hopes to show the world it has been wrong about Irish food

Brian McGinn likes nothing better than finding out he's completely wrong about a country's food. "As an American, I thought Russian food was just caviar and vodka," he explains. But directing a new episode of Netflix's Chef's Table from The White Rabbit in Moscow has been eye-opening. "They've been fermenting food in the same way the Scandinavians have hundreds of years before Noma became popular."

Next year, the 31-year-old filmmaker is coming to Ireland for a speaking gig at the Ballymaloe Litfest in May. It could pave the way for an Irish episode of Chef's Table. He's hoping to find the world has been wrong about, or at least has overlooked, some fascinating Irish food stories.

"As someone with Irish heritage I'm always so attracted to these stories where there's a misconception about a food culture," he says on the phone from the US. "And I think that especially right now the outside world is rediscovering Ireland and saying 'oh my goodness there's a whole agricultural history and a richness there that we should look into.' We would love to come and make a Chef's Table in Ireland and we'll be looking around and trying to make that happen."

McGinn's great grandparents and their daughter, his grandmother, moved from Dublin to New York in the early part of the 20th century. His father moved west to California to teach at Stanford University.

McGinn developed Chef's Table with series creator David Gelb three years ago after the two filmmakers, then in their 20s, decided they wanted to "make a food show that felt like Jiro Dreams of Sushi". Jiro was Gelb's documentary about the then 85-year-old Tokyo sushi master Jiro Ono. Sushi became the starting point for a human saga which centred on the difficult dynamic between the sushi chef and his eldest son.

So, three years ago they wondered how many other Jiros were out there. “Are there enough amazing stories in the food world that we can make a television show out of them where each episode feels like a film?” they asked. “What we discovered really quickly once we started researching was that there are so many amazing people in the food world and that a lot of the time the only coverage is a single-page profile in a magazine.”

Three seasons of Chef's Table followed with the latest season set entirely in France. A fourth season, including that Moscow episode, is being edited at the moment.

Chef's Table became a food show about people. It's "more about philosophy and creativity and the way people see the world as it is about how to combine pork with mole", McGinn says.

Documentaries are having a golden age, he adds. That's partly because of how much more cinematic they've become. "Advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to put a lot more on the screen with documentary budgets. That goes a long way to making them feel more like movies and really drawing people in and creating a theatrical experience for people. Places like Netflix have changed the game in the way that people consume documentaries. There were very few outlets – the BBCs and the PBSs that were the places you would go to find great documentaries. Now you have a library of documentaries and an hour at a time you can learn about food or you can learn about nature. And that's really transformed things."

McGinn loves to hear feedback from viewers who wouldn’t consider themselves a “foodie” but “really connects with the show. To have people discover the things you were doing which are outside the things they were interested in is a very modern and exciting phenomenon.”

In September, McGinn ate a pop-up dinner by Belfast restaurant Ox in New York in collaboration with the New York bar, The Dead Rabbit. He loved it. "The thing that was so interesting to me was the idea of combining these kind of traditional Irish flavours, the idea of thinking about Ireland as a seafood mecca, which was not for some reason an idea that I had put together in my head. But it makes total sense. Where you guys are in the world are right near all this pristine seafood. That was the thing that really stuck out to me was the seafood, that combination of the Passardian [French chef Alain Passard] local cuisine, respect for ingredients mixed with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek Irish attitude."

So what will it take for an Irish restaurant to make the cut? “We’re looking for people with really unique perspectives. There are a lot of people now who are just following trends. The whole point of the show is to find the people who are creating the next trends or people who have bucked trends to go their own direction. Those are the people we get really excited about.”