Dustin Harrison-Atlas isn’t an “in-the-know foodie,” but he produced and directed one of the most interesting food documentaries about D.C.’s red-hot dining scene. His film, New Chefs on the Block, follows Aaron Silverman (of Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple & Pearls) and Frank Linn (of Frankly … Pizza!) as they go through the trials and tribulations of opening a new restaurant.
In many ways his film is a four-year retrospective on the ascent of two newcomers who are now making quite a name for themselves in the kitchen. The film also features one of the last on-camera interviews with Michel Richard, a legendary chef who left a lasting mark on D.C. with restaurants Citronelle and Central, but died last year.
Dustin Harrison-Atlas may not be a restaurant industry insider, but he captured much of the city’s culinary rise on camera. And this weekend will be a homecoming of sorts. The George Washington University and American University grad recalls a time when he worked at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, right across the street at AFI Silver Theatre, and dreamed of being on the big screen. This weekend his wish comes true. The AFI DOCS festival will close out with his feature film.
If you don’t already have tickets, there are two options: Wait in a standby line—likely to be as long as the infamous Rose’s Luxury line—or patiently wait a few more months for the film to be picked up, hopefully for a limited-run screening and possibly a Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or Amazon stint. Harrison-Atlas says, he’s working with a company responsible for food documentary hits like Chef’s Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
I sat down with Harrison-Atlas to find out how the project began and what surprised him the most. And, don’t miss the film review in today’s WCP cover story, Documentary Now!
Tim Ebner: So how did you first come to meet Aaron and Frank?
Dustin Harrison-Atlas:I actually Googled, “new chefs in D.C. opening their first restaurant,” and Aaron Silverman’s Kickstarter campaign for Rose’s Luxury popped up. So I gave him a call, and he answered. Then, he invited me to his pop-up at Hogo, and I met his crew. He told me that he was in the business of making people happy, not making food, and that was intriguing to me. His philosophy and his crew were almost cultish.
Frank Linn was always a pizza guy, and he’s actually my brother-in-law, so I started shadowing him from the beginning as he was testing recipes and sauces. From there, he built a brick oven in his backyard and decided to serve pizza at farmers markets around Maryland. And one day, something just clicked, and he decided that he was going to build a restaurant by hand. That’s when I knew this was going to be a great documentary. So we started filming in the spring of 2013, and at that point construction at Rose’s Luxury had barely started. Really, it was just a big hole in the ground.
TE: Did you think Aaron and Frank were going to make it?
DHA: With both, I knew there was just this sheer determination. I really did have a feeling that both chefs were going to be successful in their own ways. I mean, Frank’s pizza is literally the best pizza that I’ve ever had, and I still remember tasting Aaron’s popcorn soup.
TE: You also interviewed some well-known chefs, including Michel Richard before he died. Did he see the film?
DHA: That’s the most heartbreaking thing, and I still get shivers about this. Michel passed away two weeks before we finished editing. It was heartbreaking. The only thing that puts a smile on my face is knowing that he got to see the trailer, which he was a big part of. He loved it.
TE: What has the reaction to the film been like?
DHA: Chefs from all over the world are finding this story inspirational. And the film is also inspiring anyone who is an entrepreneur or wants to open a small business in the face of great odds. When I was making the film, I had not considered the broad appeal and impact. Somebody at every screening has told me that the film resonates and feels real to them.
TE: Talk about the time it took to shoot and edit. What surprised you the most about the film?
DHA:From the day I started filming to the first day we had an edited and finished product, it was about four years. That’s a huge chunk of my life. I shot, directed, and produced the whole thing, largely by myself—except for shoots like the Rose’s Luxury soft opening, where I needed extra hands and sound work.
When it came time to edit, a producer and close friend, Adrian Muys, knew that I had the story in the can. He committed to helping me fundraise for the film, and I really needed him for this project because he went out and raised money that made the editing our full-time job.
Throughout this process, there were so many surprises. I was able to follow Aaron and see what it’s like to be one of the busiest restaurants in the country and have to deal with such massive notoriety and seriously long lines. You get to see the weight of the crown that comes with success, and how he moved from the kitchen to a more business position.
For Frank, his obsession was really going for pizza perfection, and the operations started to fall into the lap of his wife, Kate Diamond. I knew that her story was going to be real and exciting because you never get to witness the impact of being married to a chef.
TE: Can we expect another D.C. screening soon?
DHA: We did get picked up by a company called Preferred Content. They are a sales team helping us to find a distributor. So we’re hoping to do at least a small theatrical run, as well as strike a deal with Netflix, HBO, Amazon, or Hulu. But we will 100 percent do a theatrical run again and start that run in D.C. So stay tuned.
(Interview edited for length)