Recess Interviews: Brian McGinn


Brian McGinn T'07 is an L.A.-based director whose work includes the Netflix series "Chef's Table" and the HBO TV film "Ferrell Takes the Field." McGinn returned to campus to chat with students as well as answer questions at a screening of "Chef's Table" sponsored by Freewater productions, DEMAN, Artstigators, DSB and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The Chronicle's Georgia Parke sat down with McGinn to talk about "Chef's Table," and the creative worlds of food and directing.

The Chronicle: We hear so much about how people watch films and shows differently now [on streaming services]. Does that change how directing is done because the medium is so different?

Brian McGinn: We really approach things to make them as good as we can possibly make them. I don’t really think that anyone is changing their creative style or the way that they make things. I think it’s just a difference in the way that people are consuming things. Netflix is such a great place because you can go and get all sorts of different content.

TC: That’s a very different type of series than the kind you can see on TV and keep up with. Is there a thought process that goes through packaging it that way?

BM: I don’t think so... We’re passionate about telling the stories of the chefs. For us, Netflix is just the perfect place to do it because you have the freedom to tell those kind of stories and we have a passionate audience that reaches people all over the world. We were really focused on our jobs, which is to try to reflect these people’s lives and passions in a way that was cool and good, as good as we could make it.

TC: In terms of finding your stories, what I found so interesting is that each story was completely unique and there were so many things you wouldn't be able to know just by meeting the person. How do you find the right person to get that whole narrative?

BM: It’s hard because the show is different. It’s not only saying, "Here’s their food," it’s also saying, "Here’s their philosophy on life, here’s the way they approach creativity." I like to say we’re trying to find people who live the same way they cook. For example, in the first [episode], we did Massimo Bottura. His kind of quest was to reinvent Italian food, which was traditionally passed along from grandmother to grandmother. It’s this very old school way of cooking. And Massimo said, "No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to reinvent Italian food as something that’s cool. I’m going to take just the crunchy part of the lasagna. That’s the best part of the lasagna. And take just the crunchy part."

What he’s really doing is that’s a way of looking at the world. That’s really what we’re looking for with everyone. Magnus Nielsen—Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden—as much as Magnus doesn’t like the narrative of being remote, his restaurant is 400 kilometers north of Stockholm. Half the year it's frozen, so it begs this question, how do you make a restaurant that’s one of the best in the world in a place that doesn’t really seem like it fits like that? That’s an interesting thing to just look into as a storyteller and a filmmaker because we can go, "Oh my God, I bet there’s something there we can film with other people." ...We’re looking for people who are not really satisfied with the status quo, who want to do something great.

TC: What do you think it is that people find so captivating about food and hearing these stories all centering around the culinary part of it? What is it that people find so attractive in that topic?

BM: Well, we all have to eat. So that’s kind of the first element. I really think that what people like about the show is that it’s not only about the food, that it’s really about creativity and passion and I think those are kind of universal, those are things that are interesting to everyone. And we all want to know, how can I approach my life in a way that’s passionate and uses every day to the fullest? And how can I have the life that I want? And so I think it’s really getting at those things just as much as it’s getting at, how do I make a great dish? It’s not a typical cooking show. It’s about people and the way that they approach it. 

But in terms of the broader question, I think that really what we’re seeing is that people are starting to accept food as a form of creative expression so it’s not longer just some slop on a plate. It's not the Dillo. We can actually express yourself through food and tell a story so you no longer have to write or make movies to tell a story, you can actually say, "Here’s something form my life and I’m going to share it with you but it’s in food form." 

Everyone likes that experience whether it’s doing it a high-end place or there's this great place in Brooklyn, it’s this guy who makes grain bowls and you can toss some jambalaya but every single bit of it has a personal connection there for him that’s he’s trying to share with people. High or low end, everyone wants to have a narrative shared with them.

TC: The Dillo is actually gone now.

BM: Not doing a good enough job telling the story. or maybe too much food poisoning.

TC: They did keep the bar part of it.

BM: How could they not keep the bar part of it? That part was flourishing.

TC: What would you say to Duke students who want to get involved in that kind of thing, or do they need to put themselves into the way things are right now or should they be innovating more?

BM: I’ve never really focused on how my work is going to be consumed. I’ve waited and found people who know way more about that than me and who are doing way cooler things than I am to take over that side of things. In that way, what I’ve really focused on and what I would encourage people who want a career in the arts to do is to really focus on their craft. Figure out what they want to say and not get discouraged by how much time it takes. 


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