Whether causation or correlation, the rise of foodie culture can be traced back to when reality cooking shows came to dominate the airwaves. In the mid-aughties, juggernauts like “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” and “Hell’s Kitchen” invited viewers to ride shotgun in the high-stress world of professional cooking—albeit with artificially heightened stakes and melodrama. The format resonated and nearly two decades later, Americans are still hooked.
But in recent years, foodservice on screen has expanded beyond reality competitions and into the documentary realm. Films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and series such as “Chef’s Table” were quieter but no less resonant.
Now, following one of the greatest upheavals in modern history, a slew of new documentaries and docu-series are tackling some of the thorniest issues facing foodservice.
At the tailend of 2020, Guy Fieri debuted Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line, a Food Network documentary that followed four renowned chefs as they grappled with the pandemic. A follow-up special, Restaurant Hustle 2021: Back in Business, caught up with the quartet a year later.
“Tough times make tough people. And these four are the toughest,” Fieri said in a promo reel.
He might be the biggest name to produce a pandemic F&B documentary, but he’s hardly alone. In February, SOMM TV aired Saving the Restaurant, featuring master sommelier and multi-concept restaurateur Bobby Stuckey. The documentary chronicles both Stuckey’s efforts to safeguard his restaurants (including James Beard Award–winning Frasca), as well as his advocacy for Congressional support during the toughest days of lockdown.
“I have this anvil on my chest not because I’m worried about my restaurants—of course I am, I’m scared to death—but I’m really worried about this industry going down,” Stuckey said in the film.
In March, La Belle Vie, so named for a Los Angeles restaurant, premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Like other documentaries, it unpacked the impact of the pandemic through the lens of an individual. In this case, it was chef Vincent Samarco whose French bistro was ultimately forced to close.
Even before COVID, films like A Fine Line, which examined the gender disparity in restaurant leadership, were delving into meatier issues. Pandemic documentaries have furthered the trend, but only time will tell if it’s part of a larger shift toward heavy-hitting anthologies on the restaurant world.