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Interview: The TV Producer Who Changed Food-Driven Storytelling

On Monday, September 24 Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

As co-founder and chief creative officer at Zero Point Zero Production, Lydia Tenaglia has had more than a front-row seat to the changing landscape of food television over the past two decades — she helped define it. Known largely for her work with the late Anthony Bourdain, Tenaglia has also worked on many other food-focused documentaries and series that have shaped how the public eats and thinks about food and restaurants.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Skift Table: So for those not familiar or not reminded, I’ll just lay out a few of the shows that you guys have been involved in. Everything Anthony Bourdain has done on TV, Meat Eater, Diary of a Foodie, Wasted!, Fermented, The Layover …

Lydia Tenaglia: Mind of a Chef.

Skift Table: Mind of a Chef, and Somebody Feed Phil.

Tenaglia: Yeah, and then Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.

Skift Table: Which is remarkable.

Tenaglia: A lot of food stuff.

Skift Table: So did you guys set out and say, “Okay, we’re going to dominate storytelling through food,” you and [co-founder and producing partner] Chris [Collins] in the early days?

Tenaglia: No, actually, we didn’t set out that way at all. I mean, when we had happened upon Bourdain, Chris and I were working in medical programming. But it was with very small format cameras where we were going into emergency rooms and shooting shows like trauma life in the ER and maternity ward, and things like that.

There’s relevancy here, because when I had read that Bourdain wanted to write A Cook’s Tour and travel the world, I approached him. He was at the restaurant at the time, and I said, would you ever want to try to make that into a television series. And at the time, having worked for five years on end doing a lot of medical stuff and kind of blood-and-guts television, we were actively looking for a change.

But the type of shooting and the way we were shooting it was something, a kind of paradigm that we ultimately ended up bringing to the shooting of all of those early shows of Bourdain, which is, we had very small format cameras, very intimate, and we had been used to, up to that point, being in very intimate locations, being very unobtrusive, sort of understanding how to produce, how to insert yourself quietly at the right moment and then retract and observe.

And that style of shooting became very, very important, I think, in the early days of what we created with Bourdain with A Cook’s Tour, because we ended up quickly finding ourselves in the back of very small restaurant kitchens in the midst of very remote locations in Asia and Thailand and Cambodia. We would go upstream in a canoe and suddenly be in a duck farmer’s home.

That ability to be able to quietly observe and then quietly insert and then quietly retreat and just capture became I think the sort of fundamental building blocks to that style of travel food television. You know, at the time, I think people thought it was very revolutionary, what Bourdain was doing. It really did emanate out of that style of small format producer-shooter construct. And then you couple it with him and his sort of inimitable way of phrasing things and I think we had a sort of synergy going on.

Skift Table: His style of rawness with the more realistic as opposed to typical food television or travel television where it’s like, the fields of Tuscany! Let’s look at the Risotto! Stuff like that.

Tenaglia: Yeah, it was decidedly not that.

Skift Table: You said in an interview that the first episode you guys did was really, really awful, which was Japan.

Tenaglia: Yes.

Skift Table: What made it so awful?

Tenaglia: I think he just didn’t understand, it was a new experience for him. And I think we probably we’re depending on him too much, having read so much of what he had written, I thought, this guy’s going to be a natural wordsmith. But you’re taking the platform of writing and trying to make it something visual.

He had a stumbling point in that first episode where he didn’t understand the translation of what he knew he could do so well on the page and how to translate that into something visual. So it was really a function of Chris and I kind of guiding him, pushing him, prompting him. He just was sort of like a deer caught in the headlights in the first episode. And we were kind of like, holy crap we’re f*cked. This is not going to go well, this is really bad!

Skift Table: This definitely won’t last 15 years.

Tenaglia: Yes, you know, this just couldn’t be worse. He felt awkward. But then, it was a five country run and the next episode we did was in Vietnam, we just went right on the heels, we flew from Japan to Vietnam. The minute we got off that plane into the airport, he suddenly had at his fingertips all of these cultural references, the context.

He was a huge reader of Vietnam History, war, politics. And then going into that airport, which is the airport you see in all the photographs from the 1960s of body bags coming out. Suddenly something clicked that there’s cameras here, and he suddenly began to understand his relationship to the cameras and how the camera could really become an extension for haw he saw and thought about things. It was a clicking point, it was the second episode, and then things just pivoted, and then we were kind of off to the races.

And you know, it was a twenty year project between A Cook’s Tour and then No Reservations for eight years, and then of course Parts Unknown on CNN, it was a gigantic work in progress that evolved and got richer and deeper with each location and each passing year as he had all those frames of reference.

Skift Table: So from the early days when it was kind of like, you’re seeing him discover things along the way to especially in these later years where you’re also seeing him watch other people discover things new through their eyes, whether it’s a recurring character like Eric Ripert introducing hot peppers into Sichuan cuisine or President Obama, or [the recent episode] with W. Kamau Bell. What was that process like, seeing him going from being the novice to him being the let me take you along your self-realization journey of food?

Tenaglia: I always liken those three shows as if like, A Cook’s Tour was somehow high school, and then No Reservations he was in college, and then Parts Unknown he’s like, professor emeritus. He’s really become a cultural anthropologist at this point.

Traveling the world 250 days plus out of the year, going from location to location for so many years in a row, there was something exciting about the injection of a companion coming along, because he could almost see that location anew. He was kind of enjoying it now through someone else’s fresh experience, and I think there was something very exciting about that for him.

Not to say that the show in any way had become painful austerity for him, but you know, you’re traveling to all these different locations, you go into a market in a particular country, it’s an experience you probably have an analog to two episodes back.

But then when you see it through the eyes of W. Kamau Bell, who had never been to Kenya, and sort of looking at everything. You could see in that episode last night Tony’s excitement of revisiting something from a fresh perspective. And probably f*cking with it a little bit, because he’s like, “okay let me see how I can f*ck with this guy now, ’cause he’s really a newbie,” and so there was some kind of electricity going on there too.

Skift Table: Yeah, it’s really good episode. Not to say it’s the best in a long time, because that says that things weren’t as good, it just blows you out of the water, it’s really good. So, you guys aren’t just telling stories with Tony, you’ve been telling stories different ways about the food we eat, whether it’s about Wasted! series or Rotten. And so in a way it’s this, farm to table in a different way. What do you think telling stories like in Rotten, like Cod Is Dead or whatever, tell us about the way we eat now and what responsibilities do we have, and people in the restaurant industry have, not being wasted and rotten?

Tenaglia: That’s a really great question. I think the mission statement of Zero Point Zero is to create content to help connect humanity or impact humanity. I think we see what we do and the ability to kind of reach a wide audience as a position of responsibility. So how do you tell stories and how do you pitch material that actually has the ability to connect or impact or change or pivot somebody’s perspective? I think that’s pretty pervasive in a lot of our work, and I would even argue a lot of our food-travel television work as well.

Wasted! was a documentary film that emanated out of our understanding. Rockefeller Foundation had a really big mandate, [an] initiative to reduce food waste by the year 2050 and to really work deeply on that. So we pitched them the idea of doing a long-form doc, because people want to attach to characters, and who’s on the cutting front age of this? Well, in our experiences, it’s chefs.

If you look at that film, the bulk of the characters we follow are chefs like Massimo Bottura and Dan Barber who are really actively working on and trying to solve, just from their smaller perspective but then kind of rippling out that issue of food waste. We wanted it to be a very positive hopeful story. It’s a very dire issue, but nobody wants to watch dire issue driven things, so we really dug in and we found strong characters and we told a really good story of how these people are making change.

And I think similarly, Rotten and those types of series, too, have a kind of investigative journalistic quality to them. It’s the idea of, how do we explore the idea of corporate responsibility in an industry that really impacts all of us because we all eat, we all consume? You know, honey, cod, where’s this stuff coming from, who’s on the supply chain, where are thing’s going awry? I think we want that level of transparency in every level of our life, and so that series explores it from that perspective.

Skift Table: Speaking of transparency, the documentary you did about Jeremiah Tower, which was really you, you were the director, and you kind of led the way. It was just an amazing lesson in American restaurants that kind of came together unexpectedly at the end. I don’t know if you can talk a little bit about the surprise of Tavern on the Green, and how you thought you had your film done already?

Tenaglia: Jeremiah’s formidable, he’s a force of nature!

Skift Table: Seems like you tamed him a bit, like in the film, I saw it afterwords…

Tenaglia: I did, it took time! We went on a real rollercoaster ride together. I think when he first came in to the office he was all kids of, I don’t know, ego. And he had a lot of ideas about the way the documentary should run, and we had a really frank talk with each other, and I said, “listen, if it’s going to be a documentary, you have got to relinquish whatever idea you have and let me really direct it.” And I said, “I promise it will be impactful, it will be celebratory, it’ll be critical, it’ll be all the things a documentary really needs to be.” And we had moments of real tension in our ride together, but we’ve become great, great friends.

Lydia Tenaglia, the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of ZPZ Production, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018.

The documentary really explores his impact on the food industry, the energy of a restaurant. He was a master of it from his childhood, through Chez Panisse, through the Stars years, he was a master of that energy. Between front of the house, back of the house, he was probably really the first celebrity chef because he was really put forth as a persona that was important and inextricable to the restaurant experience. But the documentary was broken down into three acts.

It was like, early childhood, Chez Panisse, Stars, and that was the end of it. And then of course, at the very end of our shooting he takes the job at Tavern of the Green and he comes out of the woodwork. I didn’t even know that he had moved to New York, and we made the decision to follow it, because I thought maybe there’s some illustration or example here of him at work as a 70-year-old, and it did not disappoint. You could really see everything about him that was great, and all of his tragic flaws that ultimately caused his undoing every step of the way.

Skift Table: Spoiler alert!

Tenaglia: Spoiler alert! But you know, he’s just an incredible force of nature and it had an enormous impact on our trajectory as a culinary force in the United States.

Skift Table: Were there things that you would have told him in advance about how restaurants have changed since Stars before he came back to Tavern on the Green?

Tenaglia: What was interesting is that we did a really healthy canvas of lot of restaurant tours, a lot of chefs, certainly ones that has either worked with him at Stars or had experienced Stars, and they all unanimously said that the restaurant had such a dramatic impact on the way that they viewed a restaurant and experienced a restaurant.

That was actually pretty unanimous, I think maybe what has changed is just, Jeremiah still has a very kind of beautiful, beautifully, one foot beautifully entrenched in a very old-school way of thinking about the restaurant dynamic. I don’t want to go any further than that, but I think he’s somebody who really straddled old-world and new-world, and the parts that were old-world sometimes I think ultimately kept him from moving forward.

Skift Table: Is there anything that you think, since you have inadvertently settled on dominating food-media storytelling, is there anything that works as well as food telling stories? Why not architecture, why not music?

Tenaglia: Music is very hard, because that’s really all about people’s tastes. We’ve tried music shows, the reception to that on the network side is typically very hit or miss with music, because somebody could be a fan of this and not a fan of that. Everybody eats, everyone loves to travel. If they don’t travel, they love to look at the world.

There’s a kind of natural communication you have with an audience with that subject matter. That’s why I think we’ve iterated so many different ways over the last 20 some-odd years with Mind of a Chef and “Diary of a Foodie.” It’s definitely a space that we feel comfortable in, we understand that the root of it is really character-driven stories.

It’s not just showing a place for all of its beauty, it’s how are we looking at that place, through the point of view of a great central character, whether they’re funny, or a journalist, or what have you. It’s that sort of strong entry point through somebody else. I think We’re very good at that, very character-driven types of stories.

Skift Table: I’ve got a couple of audience questions. What is so captivating for people about the celebrity chef? Very few chefs have been able to translate that exposure into sustained business success.

Tenaglia: I think people want a central rock star figure. They just do, I think it’s everybody’s propensity to want to have the guy who’s louder or brasher or cooler. I think it’s just our natural inclination, it’s like, I wanna grab on to somebody who’s just super cool and seems to be the bright, glittering light in their world. The nice phenomenon about celebrity chefs is I think it really just opened the doors literally and figuratively to the beauty of a restaurant. The restaurant, like architecture, like music, it’s a collaboration. Like filmmaking, it’s a collaboration between the audience and the people making that product. There’s an interplay there, and when that interplay works really well, you have a tremendous success. But I think it’s just our natural inclination, we want to rest ourselves on somebody who’s a strong central figure.

Skift Table: We have time for one more. We’ll go with the second one. Picking a location, brainstorm, final decision, for a show like Parts Unknown, was that part of a collaboration or was that Tony saying, “I’m gonna go here.”

Tenaglia: It was kind of more of the latter, but definitely there was some of the former as well. There were locations that he had researched. A lot of the locations emanated out of references that he had, whether it was wanting to reach out to a particular character, like in Hong Kong with Christopher Doyle who was a huge fan of Wong Kar Wai films.

A lot of it emanated out of these desires to either live his own personal fantasies with cultural icons, or places that really had a very strong kind of sociopolitical center to them, and he was wanting to explore it that way. So it was mostly him picking the locations for sure, yeah.

Skift Table: Thank you so much for being here Lydia.

Tenaglia: Yeah, of course!

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