We all have that one special place we like to eat.
Whether it’s a little ramen shop in the East Village or a rickety taco stand on Buford Highway, this spot has your go-to order perfected, right down to the mouthwatering garnish and extra sauce. You know the names of everyone who works there. You’ve visited through breakups, promotions, tragedies, and achievements. This place is a culinary secret you’re happy to keep, but even more excited to share.
And yet, your place, however magical, rarely gets featured outside of your local food magazine, and seems to take more convincing for newcomers to visit than it ought to.
Street Food aims to change that.
Documenting street-level culinary gems from around the world, the new Netflix series examines not only what makes local cuisine uniquely spectacular, but also how and why the people behind these dishes began cooking them in the first place.
Creators David Gelb and Brian McGinn say the inspiration for the series came from their time traveling as fine dining documentarians on their other Netflix series, the much-beloved Chef’s Table.
“We noticed that, whenever we were visiting a new city, the people that were showing us around and guiding us would always take us to the street food vendors that they love the most,” McGinn recalls for Mashable.
“It seemed as though there was an opportunity to examine these artisans, these craftsmen — because that’s really what they are, they’ve been doing the same thing sometimes 30, 40, 50, 60 years — and to examine their lives and their work with the same rigor we try to bring to Chef’s Table.“
“It was constantly a race to capture all these stories in the time that we had in each place.”
Visiting Thailand, India, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore, Street Food: Volume 1 captures the culinary achievements and life stories of numerous chefs and cooks from across Asia.
Without top brass publicists or even a Zagat guide entry to steer them, Gelb and McGinn went about finding their series’ stars in the same way many foodies find their favorite dishes: by word of mouth.
“We started building this network of food experts, of food journalists, of people on the ground in these countries who then said, ‘Oh! Maybe you should check out this city!’ or ‘This city might actually be really interesting’ and they would kind of point our focus,” McGinn details.
“And then, within each city, we would do the same thing. We would find an expert, and then that expert would help us identify a number of vendors that we should look into. And so, it was this process of slowly gathering information.”
Once there, with the star chefs onboard and only five or so days to film, Street Food‘s creators didn’t need to find each city’s story, so much as try to keep up with it. For millions of cooks across the globe, serving their dishes isn’t just an art, hobby, or passion — it’s a critical part of their family’s livelihood.
“These people aren’t cooking for their own self glory,” Gelb notes. “They’re cooking for their families, sometimes just to survive.”
“It was constantly a race to capture all these stories in the time that we had,” McGinn adds. “It was different for every place and for every vendor. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Mbah Satinem, who is the featured vendor in [episode 4], would get up in the middle of the night and start cooking her jajan pasar.”
In the wee hours of the morning, the Street Food crew accompanied Satinem in her daily ritual of making “sweet treats” for Yogyakarta locals.
“In India, there’s this Nihari stew,” recalls McGinn. “Every morning, hundreds of people line up for this stew in this alleyway and jostle for position, and shout their orders to the brothers that run the stand. There’s this incredible vitality and energy and a little bit of chaos as everyone tries to be one of the people whose gonna get some of this stew before they run out.”
Moments like these can be found throughout the series — positioning street food not as a quick bite, but as a vital component of local culture and community.
“It goes to a deeper idea about the context and the story and the character behind the food.”
“It’s all about trying to use food as an entry point to understanding these people’s lives,” McGinn emphasizes of the series. “That interplay between the personal story and what the food means is something we’re really passionate about exploring.”
For this reason, McGinn and Gelb have eschewed the popular phrase “food porn,” preferring to think of their work, both on Chef’s Table and Street Food, as a kind of “food romance” instead.
“It goes to a deeper idea about the context and the story and the character behind the food,” Gelb says of the phrase. “It’s not just beautiful food shots. It’s story, and it’s context, and it’s character that makes it resonate and makes the food more delicious, more meaningful, and more powerful.”
Perhaps, then, no story on Street Food is more romantic than that of Toyo, a chef in Osaka, Japan, known for his delicious food and boisterous personality — and the man who came to mind for both Gelb and McGinn when asked what moment during production they found most memorable.
“[Toyo’s] cooking this tuna with this blow torch and he’s always cracking jokes,” Gelb recalls of the culinary entertainer, featured in episode 2.
“He’s showing off these feats of strength, doing pull ups, and pranking his customers. He’s a very funny and warm person. But then he tells this story of how kind of cruel his father was to him and how his father wouldn’t even give him the money for school lunch.”
As is often the case with our favorite dishes, the story of Toyo’s life is a complex one, hidden by an invitingly simple exterior.
Before coming to own his izakaya (a kind of informal Japanese pub) in Osaka, Toyo began his cooking career making stir fries from weeds and leaves he would forage from fields near his school — a hobby that began only so he wouldn’t starve from his father’s neglect. It’s a moving story, and it’s even more impactful when Toyo tells it on Street Food.
“I’m not sure that anybody’s really asked him about his childhood like this,” Gelb says. “We see him in this height of levity when he’s serving his guests, and then we see him tell this story on the verge of tears. He wants to give people the warmth and generosity he never had when he was young.”
People like Toyo, and their willingness to share their very personal relationships with food, are in large part what makes Street Food so compelling. Unrecognized by international culinary reviews and often without the resources to expand their craft, Street Food‘s chefs are honored on the series as the artists they are.
“These street food chefs are just as passionate and devoted to their craft and what they’re doing as a three-star Michelin chef in a fancy restaurant,” Gelb emphasizes, noting that they often face even bigger obstacles towards success. “That’s one of the reasons we were so excited to make this show, just seeing how passionate these street food chefs are.”
With nine cities in its catalogue, Street Food is now on the hunt for other chefs to honor in possible future volumes. As for the places they’ve already been, Gelb and McGinn hope the stories told in Street Food will inspire viewers to visit these unique cities and the chefs that serve them.
“There’s a whole world out there and food is a great way to get to know a place, a great way to get to know a person, and a great way to get to know a culture,” McGinn says. “We always see food as that thing that binds people together, and a way to learn and understand other cultures.”
Plus, in the words of McGinn, “It’s so much better than Postmates.”
Street Food: Volume 1 is now streaming on Netflix.