The Music Behind the Magic

If you spend any time in a kitchen, you know that background noise is essential. Sometimes it can be whatever's on the radio, but the best sous-chef in the kitchen is a good soundtrack. In some kitchens, it's Pearl Jam or Metallica, and others it's David Bowie or The Alabama Shakes

Each episode of the Netflix documentary series, Chef's Table, follows world-renowned chefs on an hour long journey through their kitchens, homes, restaurants, and heads. As a follow up to his Jiro Dreams of Sushi, show-runner David Gelb takes viewers to Patagonia, Chile; New York City; Kobarid, Slovenia; and beyond, on a journey that is both inspiring and aspirational.

Chef's Table is quite magical, to put it simply. The viewers are transported into the kitchens of some of the world's greatest chefs, learning about some of the little known details that go into the success of their careers and restaurants. It's unfettered access to restaurants and chefs that most people can only ever dream of having.

Part of that magic is the music that goes along with the series. It's something you don't always think about, but without it, something is missing. Just like cooking without a soundtrack.

We had the chance to talk (via phone) with the two-time Emmy-nominated composer for the series, Duncan Thum, and learned about how he got involved, his process, and of course, what he likes to eat.

Duncan (in hat) in the studio. Photo: Rand Voorhies

Duncan (in hat) in the studio. Photo: Rand Voorhies

Hook & Blade: How did you become involved with the project?

Duncan Thum: David Gelb, the creator of the show, is a good friend from USC; we went to undergraduate together. He has success with Jiro Dreams of Sushi and pitched this new idea to Netflix. I came on for the Francis Mallmann episode (Season 1, Episode 3). I only scored the music for that episode, and I received an Emmy nomination for that. He really liked it, so I pitched composing the entire second season.

Hook & Blade: Why did you want to work on this project?

Duncan Thum: Well, the crux of it, is that I was interested in doing so. I have always loved food, and I come from a family that likes to eat well. Food is such an important part of culture. Connecting people and the earth around you. It's emotional, and there's a homeyness and comfort in food. There's a great link to music. They both have an instant access to emotion. It's really a show about food, and also life and 'the journey'.

Hook & Blade: Had you scored anything relating to food before?

Duncan Thum: I hadn't scored anything with food before. It definitely changed the way that I view food. Indelibly. I don't get to eat all of the food that I write music for, but it changes the way that you want to treat eating. The more care you put in, the more free you can be. You abandon the pretenses.

Hook & Blade: What is the process like?

Duncan Thum: I come in at the end of the overall process. I see footage, then the director, editor, and I sit down and begin the creative process. We script the story together. 'What's the emotional arc here? What's his or her journey through the culinary world? At what point do they pursue themselves?' The arc of their journey is to enhance that. Since the viewer doesn't get to taste the food while watching it, the music evokes what that food might be like.

Hook & Blade: How has the process changed season-over-season?

Duncan Thum: The third season is very much a French mini season, and we're focusing just on very storied French chefs. In the fourth season they're going back out into the world. Part of the plan is to look at the different ways excellence can be developed. It's not always in the conventional way. The thought is 'let's explore the diversity of excellence.'

Hook & Blade: What inspires you in this process?

Duncan Thum: Well, besides the food. After seeing these stories, it's personally really relatable to having a sustainable living as a musician, or a career in the creative arts. I take inspiration from the drive of the chefs to be risk takers, and not being able to rest on their laurels. I am also inspired by chefs' status of being a taste maker and being able to adapt. It's like a band that has remained popular for 20 years. They have to try new things and redefine themselves. In a lot of ways, famous chefs are like that, too.

Hook & Blade: Do you spend a lot of time cooking?

Duncan Thum: I don't do as much as I have done in the past. I have a great circle of friends and many of them are great chefs.

Hook & Blade: What's your favorite thing to eat?

Duncan Thum: I am a big fan of grilled pizza. It's definitely achievable. It often times beats pizza that you might find out there in the world. 

(header photo credit: Christine Hals)

Musings from the team at Hook & Blade Mag.