Some time ago Good Food Revolution’s Malcolm Jolley and I were enjoy a meeting over lunch at Toronto’s excellent Le Select Bistro. Being the gregarious fellows that we are, we started chatting with Bar Manager/Sommelier Martin McNenly about a video project that he was working on at the time. This faux-reality project was titled Night Chef and the whole premise was that Martin and his crew (including Chef Matthew Demille) would “break into” various restaurants around the city and attempt to replicate that establishment’s most well-known dishes.
Fast-forward to July of 2014 and Martin has just broadcast the second of his Night Chef series, an episode which sees Matthew Demille gain access to the kitchen (and wine cellar) of, wait for it… Le Select Bistro… through the city sewers.
Just last night we spoke with McNenly about Night Chef and the story behind it.
Good Food Revolution: So you have been playing about with the Night Chef idea for some time now… how did the concept come to you?
Martin McNenly: It was an idea that came up over the course of a long booze fueled night with my friend Rick Wahl. All we had was: it’s about a guy that breaks in to restaurants and cooks. As happens with many ideas, we laughed it off and didn’t really think about it again. Then one day I saw him on the streetcar. I had an itch to start a project of some kind, so when we ran into each other I suggested he come by for drinks and try to flesh out the idea. We continued to get together every Tuesday for about three months until we had built a strategy, the structure of the show, and some short term goals as well as a pitch, and logo art.
The pitch was important because we needed to be able to convince restauranteurs that they could trust us with their baby.
I’d been trying my hand at screenplay writing for a few years and that really helped in terms of making the story aspect have some depth. What we ended up with is a strange genre-bending concept. A mocumentary cooking show.
GFR: And how long does it take you to shoot one episode?
MM: It takes about 12 hours. We shot the Le Select job on a Sunday night from 10:00 pm to 10:00am so we didn’t interrupt service. Then the video footage for the Bistro mini-doc was done in a half day mostly in my kitchen, I think. It’s definitely a long night for everyone, especially Matt who’s got to perform the whole time.
GFR: So there’s a fair bit of editing going on there… who’s doing all of that?
MM: That was me. I bought a copy of Final Cut Pro and taught myself how to work it by watching instructional videos on YouTube. By the time the first episode was finished I was pretty proficient at it.
The post production is quite complicated and took about 60 hours of work. I think, with the two cameras, we shot about one hundred gigabytes or ten hours of footage. It’s a lot of work going through that amount of stuff and it gets to be a bit painful, particularly when seeing myself on the screen… There’s a lot of split screen technique in it and that can get quite tricky. Once the best shots had been collected and assembled and I had it down to about the right running time I passed it over to Neil Hubert who did some graphics work and credits on it. When that stuff is done its a lot easier to see it as a whole. Then I went back again and just tightened it up. I really like that part of it, it’s very gratifying.
GFR: And how did you come to be working with Chef Matthew Demille? He’s quite the ham on camera isn’t he? (as are you!)
MM: He really is. I think he’s one of the funniest guys I know. I met Matt when he was the Sous Chef and I was the Bar Manager at Le Select Bistro. Anyone that knows Matt will say that he’s a fucking hilarious guy. He’s always on. His mind works differently than most peoples. (I used to love going down to the kitchen and see him hamming it up with the other cooks.)
He was always curious about my acting agent, I think part of him would love to do stand-up comedy, he’s that funny. So, when Rick and I were thinking about what qualities the Night Chef should have, two guys came to mind, Matt Demille and Matt Matheson because I thought they were both funny in their own ways and they had the skills to pull it off. Matheson would have been good too but I wasn’t sure he would have been into it and since Demille was at work everyday I just thought ‘fuck it, lets get him.’ He loved the idea and brought a lot of fun and enthusiasm to the thing. He also takes his professional life very seriously in the sense that it means a lot for him to always be doing his best and keep learning and improving. I really respect the guy.
GFR: I was quite impressed that you climbed down a sewer grate… surely you didn’t actually traverse the sewer?
MM: No, that’s just editing, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was going to work or not. We actually jumped a few fences at a condominium construction site because they had these massive concrete pipes laying out in the yard and I thought they would work as a sewer pipe. We had a couple of guys on look-out to make sure the security guards didn’t see us or that there weren’t any cops driving by and we just crawled back and forth in these dirty things for about thirty minutes, improvising lines and being silly.
GFR: How do you go about picking the restaurants that you break into?
MM: First and foremost, Night Chef and his crew are in it for the food and booze. Chef Albert does such a great job there at Le Select and of course Jean Jacque’s wine cellar is one of the best in the country.
But then the second most important part is about how much fun we can have. Questions like: What would we cook? What would we drink? What would the subject for the mini-doc be? How would we break in? How would we get out? We were talking about doing the CN Tower because we thought it would be really cool to base jump off of it when we had to get out. That’s an insane idea but it’s kind of ridiculous and funny and how great would it be if you could actually do it or find a way to make it look like you did it. We mostly just sit around and talk about places and try to have a good laugh. And it always starts by talking about our favorite places to eat. Which ever of those conversations goes the furthest and moves somewhat organically we go with that one.
I guess some places have a lot more fodder than others.
GFR: How did Chef Albert Ponzo feel about you raiding his fridges and using his kitchen?
MM: He was great, he didn’t seem to mind at all. It probably helped that he knows me and Matt. The whole idea of the show is that Night Chef breaks in to places he LOVES. So there’s a feeling of reverence. It’s the opposite of Kitchen Nightmares where Ramsay walks in and points out all the shit. And shows like that were really dominating Food Network at that time so I could understand if he had any reservations about the idea but he was cool as a cucumber.
We really want to break in to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Matt does a decent impersonation of him.
GFR: And Jean Jacques with his prized wine cellar!!?
MM: JJ loved the idea of the show. I think he liked that his cellar was gonna be shown off on tv. He’s pretty proud of it. In the Le Select Episode: Part Two, I fall deeply in love with a 1947 Chateau d’Yquem. JJ loves Sauterne and likes that the show talks a bit about wine and features an oenophile as one of the characters. He basically just said, “you better not break anything.” That made me quite nervous.
GFR: What kind of gear are you shooting and editing on? I’m impressed.
MM: We shot on broadcast quality Canon HD cameras. When you’re making a show for tv the network gives the producers a manual of rules, some of which are tech specs. These cameras weren’t on the list because they were just put on the market but we managed to get them approved. We needed something small and light because it’s almost all handheld and because we needed them to fit in some pretty tight situations.
And the editing suite I put together at home. Geek stuff: MacBook Pro 2.4ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4gb ram, 23″ secondary Mac HD Monitor, Apogee Duet external sound card with KRK Rockit 5 speakers, Rode NT2A condenser microphone for the voice overs. It’s a lightweight setup for the amount of information I was processing but it got the job done without any problems. And the software was Final Cut Pro 7.
GFR: The potted history of the bistro was a nice touch… is that something that we’ll see more of in future episodes?
MM: Every episode has a mini-doc that’s supposed to be funny and informative. I really love them. My friend Peter Toccalino is a really talented writer with a keen Herzogian style. He’s also the wordsmith for a lot of the show. Rick also had a lot to do with the style of those as well as the juxtaposing of image and word.
GFR: And where do you see Night Chef going in the future… your hopes and dreams?
MM: I’d really like to spend a few years doing it for real. We always saw it as a show that would travel the world. We were really close to getting it on Food Network. We made an episode at La Palette a few years ago and sent it into their office by courier. It was a DVD inside a big yellow envelope with letters clipped out of a newspaper, like a ransom note or something, addressed to their head of original Canadian content. I’m surprised they even opened it as it looked a bit dubious. But they did, and called us in to there office right away because they thought it was hysterical. They hooked us up with Al Magee a producer (and great guy) and we put it into development.
Al worked on Trailer Park Boys and wrote for Bruce McDonald as well as a whole bunch of other stuff and we kind of hit it off right away. We shot this new pilot and then the economy took a bad turn and Food Network stopped the project. They bought a bunch of American shows that were less risky. We were so close we could taste it. We one an award for Best Lifestyle Pilot at the Banff Film Festival. We were still trying to get it on Food Network but now I think it could find a home on a different network. Our contract is up now so we own the rights to it again. I didn’t want it to sit around collecting dust any longer so that’s why it’s up on YouTube now.
If we can’t make it happen as a full time gig then so be it, but I definitely want to do another one soon. It’s just too much fun not to.
GFR: Thanks Martin… we are looking forward to seeing more of Night Chef.
MM: Thanks GFR!