WASHINGTON — In 2016, Bon Appétit magazine named D.C. its Restaurant City of the Year, announcing the nation’s capital as a hot-spot destination for foodies.
Now, one local filmmaker captures the hungry zeitgeist in his new documentary “New Chefs on the Block,” which screens at the AFI Docs Film Festival twice this weekend at 4 p.m. Friday at the E Street Cinema in downtown D.C. and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“It is absolutely unreal,” American University film school grad Dustin Harrison-Atlas told WTOP. “I worked at Discovery for three years and would walk by the AFI Silver Theatre and be like, ‘Man, I’m going to have a feature doc here someday.’ Almost exactly 10 years later, it happened. It’s a dream come true if there ever was one, and the fact that we’re a Spotlight film is even more mind blowing.”
The film explores the dreams of two local chefs in launching new restaurants: Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury in Barracks Row, D.C., and Frank Linn of Frankly … Pizza! in Kensington, Maryland.
“It started as a project where I was going to follow them from construction through their first year of business,” Harrison-Atlas said. “But incredible construction delays and unbelievable accolades made it something that I simply could not stop filming. Filming went on twice as long as I thought it would.”
How did he choose these two specific restaurants to film? Turns out, it began as a family affair.
“I love stories about hard work paying off in the face of great odds,” Harrison-Atlas said. “When my brother-in-law Frank Linn decided he was going to open his first restaurant, [saying], ‘I’m gonna build it by hand with my mother, my father and wife,’ I said, ‘That’s it. It’s going to make a phenomenal film.'”
However, he still needed to find a second restaurant in order to tell his story using parallel action.
“I Googled ‘New Chefs in D.C. Opening Their First Restaurants,’ because I wanted to compare them,” Harrison-Atlas said. “The first guy that pops up is Aaron Silverman, his concept for Rose’s Luxury and their Kickstarter campaign. … He had not even started construction yet. … He invited me in and I met their crew at a pop-up and I tasted their food. I’m not a foodie, but I knew ‘special’ when I tasted it.”
Filming commenced with Harrison-Atlas shooting the entire thing himself on a Panasonic AF-100.
“There simply was no space for anyone else,” Harrison-Atlas said. “I shot it on all prime lenses, which means that rather than doing a fly-on-the-wall film, I call it a ‘fly-on-the-plate film.’ I wanted it to be super intimate. I take the audience into the kitchens. You’re standing right next to the chefs as they’re having super intense, personal moments, and I just had unbelievable access from the very beginning.”
Over a span of three years, he shot roughly 35 days in each restaurant, plus 10-15 days of separate interviews with various industry insiders, including Central chef Michel Richard, Graffiato owner Mike Isabella, Shake Shack owner Danny Meyer and The Washington Post food critic Tim Carman.
“What’s special about the interviews is that I placed the chefs at the center of their restaurants, which helps you see the evolution of their restaurants [behind them],” Harrison-Atlas said. “There’s no green screen, there’s no black background or anything, so you always feel like you’re in the space.”
In addition to the chefs themselves, the film also creates characters out of the unique staff.
“To me, what makes it a really special film is that it’s not about the chefs and their food — it’s about the chefs and their staffs,” Harrison-Atlas said. “You get to know the kitchen staff, the wait staff, including the dishwasher. People who have seen the film have said, ‘I want more of the dishwasher!'”
Perhaps the most important characters are the family members, who shoulder much of the burden.
“Frank’s wife becomes a huge part of the film, because she’s a huge part of opening and maintaining the restaurant. That’s not something you see in most chef documentaries; you don’t see the impact of the restaurant life on the family. It’s really hard for the spouse because the chef is there all the time.”
This idea is articulated during an interview with Richard: “You spend your life in the restaurant. You don’t have much time for your own family. When I’m here, I want to be with my family; when I’m with my family, I want to be here. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. After that, I’m going to be doing it another 50 years — if I don’t get too old too fast. I love it. It’s my life.” Tragically, Richard passed away in 2016.
“I just absolutely bawled,” Harrison-Atlas said. “He was actually the second interview that I filmed, and he was magical on camera, just bubbling with life. He was born to be on camera. When I filmed his interview, I knew that I had something special going. … Two weeks before we finished editing, he passed away, so he never got to see the final film. He did get to see the trailer, which he’s a huge part of, so he absolutely loved that and knew where we were going, but super sad he never got to see it.”
While that part of the film is bittersweet, the doc shines with an overwhelmingly happy ending.
“One of the restaurants ends up winning Best New Restaurant by Bon Appétit magazine,” Harrison-Atlas said. “Both restaurants are doing incredibly well, and while I was in there filming and they were both doing amazingly well, they were all calling me ‘The Rabbit’s Foot,’ which was pretty funny.”
This happy ending makes the film very programmable at festivals amid heavier social change docs. It made its world premiere at Cinequest in San Jose, California, winning an Audience Favorite Award, followed by the Seattle International Film Festival and Hot Docs in Toronto, where 1,300 people saw the movie over three days. Each time, Harrison-Atlas can’t help but watch the audience’s reaction.
“Half the time, I’m just staring at people’s faces, knowing when the next joke is coming, to see whether they’re going to laugh or cry,” Harrison-Atlas said. “It is the most satisfying feeling after spending four years — two-and-a-half to three years of filming and a year of post-production — it is just an unbelievable feeling to have such a positive response from both the festivals and the people.”
In fact, the audience award at Cinequest sparked interest from L.A. sales team Preferred Content.
“To a sales team, [an audience award] is actually the most valuable award, even more than a jury award,” Harrison-Atlas said. “We got picked up by a top-tier sales team, which was absolutely a dream come true. … They are famous for having sold [such docs as] ‘Chef’s Table’ and ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ so we’re in really good hands. We’re in talks with lots of different companies: Netflix and Hulu.”
But first, come check out the documentary at the AFI Docs Film Festival on Friday and Sunday, a selection that inspired the D.C. Film Office to name Harrison-Atlas its Filmmaker of the Month.
“The most exciting thing is that I’ve done something with my career that I feel like I left a mark on the D.C. film scene and the D.C. food scene,” Harrison-Atlas said. “It’s more than just about the food; it’s about what and who it takes to open and maintain a restaurant. … Both the chefs and their staffs gave me unbelievable access to their hearts and souls, which is what it takes to keep these restaurants going. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you hungry! I hope everyone comes to see it.”
Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with filmmaker Dustin Harrison-Atlas below: