“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” was billed by IFC as “inspired” by David Gelb’s 2012 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but it’s closer to a straight-up re-creation (with a few key substitutions). The show impeccably mimics Gelb’s focus on a man’s obsession with perfection, and sons’ attempts to live up to their father’s standards. The humor seemed slightly lacking at first, but in retrospect, this season’s second episode is just so different in pacing, tone and the ribald humor from John Mulaney’s script for last week’s episode (“The Bunker”) that comparisons would be unfair. Written by co-creator Seth Meyers, “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” offers a subtler, refined humor that appeals to the food snob in all of us.
Instead of sushi in Tokyo, Documentary Now shifts to a remote village outside of Bogotá, Colombia, where Juan’s small restaurant earned a three Michelin star rating for serving a meal consisting of “warm” black coffee, a split banana, buttered rice and chicken (when available). The eatery is so off-the-beaten path that patrons have a 40-minute-walk from the closest road. When one tourist complains that he didn’t know he should have brought water for the hike, his companion says she’ll mention it in her review. It’s a perfect quip for this Yelp-ified world.
“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” hits its marks when it takes a cue from Fred Armisen’s other IFC show, Portlandia, and pokes fun at today’s food-obsessed culture. Directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono carefully construct wonderful, Instagram-able food shots throughout the episode, with the camera lingering on the pat of butter on white rice to the perfect halving of a banana. The seriousness with which Juan buries the coffee beans for that earthy taste; to his insistence on massaging chicken breasts (when available) and then shooting them out of a high-pressure cannon against a wall; and his obsessive need to inspect every banana at the market, testing how it looks in the light to how it sounds, is hilarious because we’ve witnessed similar scenes (e.g., debates on sous-vide cooking vs. poaching) on nearly every food show.
Like Jiro, the use of classical music throughout the episode adds to the “seriousness” of the subject matter. The straightforward interviews with Los Angeles Times food critic and writer Jonathan Gold and chef David Chang of Momofuku are especially effective as they apply the food show vernacular (“so simple, yet so complex” and “superior technique”) to chicken and rice. When Chang asks, “How the hell can you take four ingredients and translate that into three Michelin stars?” he says it non-ironically, which only highlights the hilarity of the statement.
Shot on location in Colombia, much of the episode is subtitled in Spanish, adding authenticity to the faux documentary. Armisen, who speaks in Spanish for the episode, plays Arturo, Juan’s younger son who’s been apprenticing for his perfectionist father for the past decade. Juan says that Arturo isn’t a natural in the kitchen. After all, he went to America to study “mass media” and later joined the ImprovOlympics. (The use of deadpan in Juan’s interview here is perfect.) Although Juan refers to his dead son Diego as being the natural-born cook, Arturo reveals that his brother’s not dead—just dead to dad. Diego has opened his own establishment in the city, catering to locals and tourists alike. Diego’s Fun Restaurant serves rice and chicken, too, but toss Juan’s seriousness out the window. Diego’s rice and chicken is served any way the people want, even “con Skittles.”
Documentary Now doesn’t forget that Jiro was much more about sushi. It was about family, history and legacy, and “Juan Likes Chicken & Rice” has some surprisingly touching moments as Arturo and Diego try to please their father, and as Juan reconnects with his family. There was a scene when we held our breath, waiting to find out whether Arturo kept the three-star rating from Michelin, while his father recuperates in the hospital. (You’ll just have to watch to find out.)
Unfortunately Bill Hader isn’t in this episode a lot, except for his occasional commentary as Nico Rodriguez, author of the book, Cuisine of Colombia. He pops in to provide wry observations about Juan’s Rice & Chicken, but he’s not nearly in it enough for our satisfaction.
Documentary Now! continues to surprise and entertain from week to week with such varied episodes, with some leaning toward slapstick and others more subdued. “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” clearly falls into the latter category, and never before has a simple, four-ingredient meal looked so mouthwateringly enticing and yet so laughable at the same time (elimination rounds on cooking competition show don’t count).
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.