Documentary Now: Juan Likes Rice & Chicken Review

‘Documentary Now!’ cooks up another classic with a doc that looks into the world of artisanal cooking…of rice and chicken

Documentary Now Season 2 Episode 2

This Documentary Now review contains spoilers.

“I like to dream, and when I dream, I always dream of something. Sometimes I am a child at the beach. Sometimes I am a spaceman on the moon. But in all of my dreams there is always rice and chicken.

Now here’s an idea that I just love to death. The concept of taking something so exotic and rooted in Asian culture and elegance as Jiro Dreams of Sushi and then turning it into a story about rice and chicken is just too perfect of a swap. Armisen is exactly the sort of person to headline this type of endeavor and he absolutely kills it as Juan’s son in “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken,” with entries like this feeling more so like prolonged pieces of sketch comedy rather than documentaries. It’s a nice reminder of how much sketch has evolved and where the medium has been heading. The character work being done in this show (and this episode, in particular) is so meticulous that it absolutely should be looked at with a sketch mindset.

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This documentary from the series takes on the form of a much more human, personal piece that looks at a rice and chicken chef in Colombia and the humble life that he leads, with his life being the focus rather than the artifice behind it. We’re treated to many shots of Juan from his youth growing up, close-ups of him cooking and preparing food, facts that appear on screen giving us data about Juan’s restaurant, and plenty of talking head pieces where other culinary masters and food critics (like Jonathan Gold or David Chang of Momofuku) dish on Juan and give him praise. The entry is even often told through subtitles in Juan’s native language to mystify and authenticate the entry even further. Juan’s origin story, so to speak, on why chicken is so important to him is also a deeply touching moment that’s very straightforward in its honesty.

It’s such a simple joke to see people talking about utterly mundane, ordinary food with such pomp and elegance, but it’s one that the script (which is by Seth Meyers) consistently makes work. The tone is so dry and dead through all of this, and it helps sell this concept all the more effectively. The idea that a restaurant with only four ingredients can earn a 3-Star Michelin rating is a strong one, and then it becomes even funnier when you extrapolate other haute couture fine dining experiences to this structure (like how you won’t even know if chicken is going to be on the menu when you get there). For instance, Juan’s crazy preparation process for every element of his menu, whether it’s burying the coffee beans under ground before brewing them or shooting the chicken at a wall before cooking it, they are all wonderfully surreal examples of the meticulous preparation that sushi chefs (or any fine dining, really) go through for their craft.

This week Armisen plays Arturo, Juan’s son, and does great work as his fumbling, yet loving apprentice. Hader takes a backseat this installment but still does strong work as a Cuban food critic, Nico Rodriguez, who is wowed by Juan and Arturo’s ability and craft. Hader does such a subtle job in his portrayal of a Cuban, but it’s the perfect flair that had me smirking every single time that he talks.

The documentary soon takes things to the opposite extreme in the form of Juan’s oldest son, Diego. He runs Diego’s Fun Restaurant, a rice and chicken buffet that delights in having no rules and plenty of variety, with skittles even being a possible topping (ask for the “Diego’s Delight”). Diego’s quest for his father’s approval and his desire to see him attend his restaurant brings a nice tenderness to his side of the story, too. The doc continues to just explore the different dynamics of this family, all who love rice and chicken, yet in different, yet equally valuable ways. It—much like Juan’s cooking—is beautiful in its simplicity.

The doc’s topic eventually shifts to that of the aging Juan’s eventual retirement and if Arturo is capable of taking over this dynasty (especially due to his cripplingly ironic fear of chickens). It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Arturo is the real focus of this documentary. “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” gets into the touching idea of Juan wanting to help inspire Arturo and Diego offering him a store of his shop to run on his own, but how Arturo might actually be more interested in improv comedy. It’s a story all about a family that deeply loves one another and simply wants to help each other out, but also how sometimes letting someone help you and not telling them what you really want can be the hardest thing of all. Juan and company are just trying to wake Arturo up and inspire him, with that journey, from both sides, being a beautiful one to watch. Once again, all this poignancy and these life lessons are coming from rice and chicken.

Seeing the turn of events that pushes Arturo into the spotlight and take the reins of the family business is a really gripping route for the episode to follow. Watching him hatch into his new role and overcome his faults is great, as is Rodriguez’ aside that a frightened man is called a “chicken,” so a man who is afraid of chickens is therefore not a man at all. Arturo becomes more than a man in the end though, he becomes a chicken chef.

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“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” is yet another very strong, impeccably made episode from the Documentary Now! team. This installment does an even better job connecting than last week’s premiere. Every episode of this show leaves you wanting more because of how well made the episode you just watched was, with “Juan Like Rice & Chicken” adding even more to the lengthy list of what these guys are capable of.


3.5 out of 5