The director of Jiro Dreams Of Sushi made a film about Singapore’s chicken rice using his phone
David Gelb, who is also the creator of Netflix’s popular Chef’s Table and Street Food, tells CNA Lifestyle all about his new short film Poached, which puts the spotlight on rivalry between Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice.
In a diverse food haven like Singapore, chances are our cameras eat before we do. Whether we're digging into our favourite hawker food or treating ourselves to something fancier, it's almost second nature to take out our phones for a snap or two first.
So it's no surprise when an award-winning food documentarian does the same. Except that David Gelb took it further by actually shooting a short film with his.
The American director behind the critically acclaimed movie Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, as well as the popular Netflix food series Chef's Table and Street Food, recently released Poached. The five-minute film on YouTube puts the spotlight on Singapore's iconic Hainanese chicken rice, as well as the fierce competition between two famous Maxwell Food Centre stalls: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice.
So, what’s Gelb’s secret recipe in making this particular chicken rice story?
“I think it's all about story, character and passion,” said Gelb, who shot the film entirely on his iPhone 13 Pro. “(So many people are) passionate about chicken rice – the hawkers who make chicken rice are incredibly passionate about it, and the people who eat it and enjoy it are passionate about finding their favourite one and supporting their favourite chicken rice vendor.”
He continued: “And I think that throughout all of my work, from Jiro to Chef's Table and Street Food on Netflix and now to Poached with Apple and iPhone, it's really about following characters who are obsessed, who are passionate about what they do. And that is an infectious quality. It's something that is so exciting and entertaining to watch. And then when you have that kind of character plus delicious food it's really a winning kind of recipe. It's something that I've applied through all of my work.”
From shooting in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Wolfgang Puck and Chef Jiro to a tiny hawker stall in Maxwell Food Centre, what was the filming experience in Singapore like?
“The first thing I'll say is that in a time of year that we were shooting, it was hot,” said Gelb with a laugh. “So, it's a very different experience than from when we're shooting in air-conditioned three-star Michelin restaurants on Chef's Table.”
“Here we are, in the kind of indoor-outdoor hawker centre where there's just some fans, so you're really getting a very visceral experience,” he continued. “We're all kind of in it together. There's a real kind of camaraderie with my team and with the (hawker) chefs. So, we wanted to figure out a way where we can film, and they can also continue to run their business. Because we want everything to be very authentic.”
A big plus of the experience, Gelb added with a smile, is that the crew got to really enjoy the chicken rice after.
“One of my favourite things that we do when we shoot these food beauty moments is that the crew gets to just dig into the food as soon as the shot is complete," shared Gelb. “So, everybody gets to try everything. And that's one of the most fun things about shooting as a team – kind of hanging out and doing what we love. And it was really kind of a beautiful experience.”
But that is not to say that filming came without its challenges. The fact that these tiny spaces the hawkers operate in was definitely not lost on Gelb.
“There's no wasted space at a hawker centre – every bit of every stall is being used, and these very hardworking chefs, cooks all have a system about moving from one spot to another – it's a very intensive choreographed dance,” he shared. “So how do we get in there and capture great shots without interfering, and also get what we need? So, with very tight spaces, and that kind of choreography, I think it was quite challenging. Thank goodness we could squeeze the iPhone in difficult corners to get different angles.”
So now that he’s taken on the revered chicken rice, does Gelb see himself coming back to Singapore to film a entire hawker centre food series featuring our other local gems delights?
“I think that there's so many great stories in hawker culture in Singapore that we could do a whole season of Street Food, just in Singapore!” said Gelb. “And on top of that, there's also some of the greatest fine dining in the world is in Singapore. And so at every level, there’s delicious food and there are great stories behind that. So, I think we'll have to talk to Apple TV+ and see if we can put something together.”
And after tasting and filming both Tian Tian and Ah Tai’s chicken rice, which of the rival stalls does Gelb prefer?
“You got me! I thought I was going to get through the interview without having to answer this,” he replied with a laugh.
“I think that they both are very similar – but they also have their subtle differences. So, I'm not going to take sides, but I will say the rice at Tian Tian is very good, and very consistent. And I think that at Ah Tai, there is like, a little bit more of a fattiness to sauce. Which I love, but I don't know if I can eat it every day. So, they both have their merits. You know, I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide.”
You can also watch the video on MeWatch here.