New York is home to thousands of restaurants, but only a select few are considered institutions. What truly makes a restaurant an institution? Michael Sparaga’s new documentary THE MISSING INGREDIENT: WHAT IS THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS? explores this complex question by going behind the scenes of two New York restaurant establishments. Michael spoke to us about his experience filming this project and what he learned throughout the process.
1. Can you share with us a little bit about your background and what drew you to filmmaking?
When I was growing up, for the longest time I thought I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. In high school, I became the captain of my debate team and was reading every legal thriller I could get my hands on. But at the same time, I was writing my school play and watching at least 10 movies a week, either in the theater or on Beta (my family was super slow to make the move to VHS). This was the late 80s/early 90s, which was a great time to be a film fan. Filmmakers like Tim Burton, Stephen Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese were in their heyday. Then, the year before graduation, a guidance counsellor asked me why I wasn’t considering applying to film school. To be honest, until that day I didn’t know there was such a thing as “film school”, but from then on, getting into film school became my obsession. Six months later, I was enrolled at York University in Toronto, studying film.
2. The Missing Ingredient tells the story of two well-known restaurants in NYC and ideally, goes behind the scenes of the hospitality/food industry. Why did you decide to focus on just those two restaurants?
It was terrifying to embark on making a documentary about New York City dining institutions. New Yorkers have VERY STRONG OPINIONS about restaurants. Me and my co-producer/editor, Joel Roff, knew that no matter which restaurants we chose, there would be people who would say “Why didn’t you choose Elaine’s?” or “Why didn’t you choose Rao’s?” But there was a very specific reason why we chose the Upper East Side institution, Gino’s, and the up-and-coming Midtown eatery, Pescatore. Although they previously had no link to one another, Pescatore’s owner, Charles Devigne, had recently made the decision to put up the iconic zebra wallpaper made world-famous for being on Gino’s walls for 65 years. Charles’ bold choice upset some people, particularly Gino’s owners and generations of loyal regulars. When I heard about this story, I loved how incredibly unique and specific it was, but I felt it also gave me the jumping off point to try and answer the universal question, “What makes a restaurant an institution?” That’s what this film is really about, which is why we also speak to the owners of other New York institutions like Le Veau d’Or, Delmonico’s, and Gotham Bar & Grill, as well as food writers and critics, like Gael Greene.
3. Did you discover any aspects of the hospitality/food industry that surprised you?
I worked in restaurants as a waiter for 15 years, so I knew it was hard work. But until I started following Charles around with a camera, I really didn’t know quite how hard it was to be the owner and operator of a restaurant. Charles’ hours were insane. Besides doing all the ordering, managing the staff, and being on the floor the whole time the restaurant was open, he was also working with his contractor at night because he didn’t have enough money to close his business during the renovation. He was doing all this, and still finding some time to spend with his wife and children. Our first day of shooting went from 8AM to 6AM the following day. It made me feel ashamed I ever complained about how hard it was to wait tables.
4. Were there any challenges you faced while filming?
In regards to Pescatore, finding space to shoot in a small restaurant wasn’t particularly easy, especially with mirrors on several walls. But our cinematographer, Hannah Gregg, was incredible at finding corners and gliding between tables without knocking into people or getting in the way. Hannah was a godsend.
As for Gino’s, the challenge was getting access to people. It took talking to the regulars who had been going to Gino’s for 10 years, to be introduced to the people who had been going to Gino’s for 20 years, then to the owners who had been there for nearly 40 years, and so on. These are very private people. You can’t just call them up out of the blue. You need the personal connection. I liken it to peeling an onion. You have to go layer by layer to get to the center of the Gino’s story.
5. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in documentary filmmaking?
No matter how big your subject is, whether it’s the education system or an environmental disaster, find drama in the choices of your characters. Audiences are most interested in knowing why your characters did what they did. I feel that anyone who has agreed to be interviewed wants to talk to you. They may have an idea of what they want to say, and even what they don’t want to say, but it’s up to you to make them feel comfortable enough to go that extra distance. Sometimes it’s not even about asking a follow up question. It’s about nodding with understanding or a offering a knowing smile and they’ll just keep going. You’ll know you got a good interview when you and your crew are driving away and you all say “Did that just happen?” at the same time.
6. Are you currently working on any upcoming projects?
Yes! We’re already hard at work on a new feature length documentary. It’s about fan activists who fight to keep their favorite TV shows on the air. We’re exploring the history and evolution of these grassroots campaigns from the protest marches and letter-writing that saved Star Trek in the 60s, to the social media and crowd-funding campaigns of today. We’re talking to people from all sides, not only the fan activists, but also the creators, stars and network executives. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but we’re missing the free dinners we got making The Missing Ingredient.
Watch The Missing Ingredient.