If you cast a superficial glance at movie times and television schedules, you might think being a chef was just about rote culinary competitions and dudes hitting the road to get their fried food on. Jon Favreau is the latest to add to the trend with the indie charmer Chef, a film about a man who reconfigures his relationship with food by hitting the road in a food truck. It’s familiar material; television’s been giving us heaps of men hitting the road to please their taste buds for years from Feasting on Asphalt to the fan favorite Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
But of course, the world of chefs extends well beyond rumbling engines, fried foods, and manliness, and cinema’s modern crop of chef-centric documentaries is a great way to see the expanse of experiences and techniques that go into being a chef, as well as the fundamental basics they all share.
Some are exciting, some are thought-provoking, and all challenge our preconceptions about the craft of food.
Kings of Pastry
If there’s one chef documentary to watch, it’s Kings of Pastry.
Most food films are a matter of food exploration. Pastry goes a step further by turning food into cinematic excitement, prompting one review (as the trailer shows) to even call it “The culinary Hurt Locker.” The film follows a selection of top-notch pastry chefs competing for the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France – a “master exam for craftsmen” so fastidious that chefs train for months and judges not only inspect and taste the food, but also details like workspace and apron cleanliness.
The result is an exciting, nail-biting journey from preparation to competition, the highs and lows so palpable that the public screening I attended was filled with more gasps and audible reactions than many modern action films. The film is also a really great reminder that audience excitement needn’t come from the superficial drama much food-centric reality television boasts – it’s inherent in the skill of the craft.
The film’s logline offers: “It’s not what you cook. It’s why.” It’s a premise that suggests disparate stories, but as different as the subjects Alinea, Breitbach’s and La Cocina de Gabby are, they’re fundamentally all expressions of chefs’ inner and outer selves. That turns a basic structure about food in three different worlds into an interesting exploration of the universal fundamentals of identity in the realms of food and adversity.
There are some intense tragedies and obstacles that happen to the subjects of this documentary, but their similarities are much more fascinating. In mixing one of the best restaurants in the world with a 150-year-old community establishment and another that hopes to become one, Spinning Plates becomes a bridge between food worlds, all of which strive to recreate their experiences and memories on the plate.
A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt
Between the limitations of interest, access, and time, documentaries often focus on a small sliver of a larger, on-going picture, or a reflective piece after the fact. In Sally Rowe’s A Matter of Taste, however, the documentary becomes part of the journey as Rowe follows rising star Paul Liebrandt through a series of successes and failures on his quest for culinary success and an elusive, three-star review from the New York Times. Instead of popular chefs waxing philosophic on the art of food, Taste reveals what it takes to get there.
Following Liebrandt for almost a decade, Rowe reveals the extreme highs and lows on Liebrandt’s journey. One minute, he’s breaking records as the youngest chef to get three stars from the Times, the next, he’s unemployed and taking jobs teaching folks how to make molecular vodka tonics in a post-9/11 Manhattan. To see the struggles and successes first-hand gives the challenges of the restaurant industry an easier, more relatable handle than the usual reminiscences from popular chefs and writers.
First Run Features
Three-star success is also at the heart of Three Stars, which explores the highs and lows associated with one of the world’s biggest, and most elusive, ratings systems: The Michelin Star. Filmed in 2010, after the guides expanded to Asia, the documentary is one of the most diverse offerings in the world of chefs – in both technique and people as the film explores the food and philosophies of chefs ranging from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to Hideki Ishikawa and Nadia Santini.
The range of talent and technique is compelling, from extravagance to modestry as one chef creates molecular beads and another forages the Scandanavian countryside for edible plants, but the real engagement is in the double-edged sword the Michelin designation brings. The film explores “the constant fear of loss” chefs face as they try to keep their stars and keep their ventures economically viable, and others who choose to close and start over to cook outside the Michelin system. And yes, this is led by the tire company, and there is a rather jarring segment where the Michelin Man cavorts with new additions to the Guide.
Warning: The film might sour you to modest places with crappy service as the one resonating element each three-star place boasts (beyond the food) is a wildly impressive commitment to knowing and catering to their customers.
A trailer for the film is, curiously, nowhere to be found online, but the film IS available on Netflix.
From a distance, the culinary world can seem strange – chefs struggling for relevancy and revenues to keep them in their passions. It begins to make sense, however, with Pressure Cooker, Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman’s Emmy-nominated documentary about Philadelphia teens competing for big university scholarships in a regional food competition with judges that include Iron Chef Morimoto.
In the film, the spotlight is split between food and life, but it serves as the perfect basis in understanding the dedication and drive shown by the chefs in the previous films. As the students learn knife skills and to “break the mentality of the McDonald’s palate,” their focus is a reflection of their worlds. Being a chef isn’t just a matter of food passion, but also a method of gaining focus and earning opportunity. As the kids master the art of shaping a potato or setting up the mise en place, they are also gaining control over their lives and finding inspiration in the fight for the craft.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Where Pressure Cooker reveals the start of culinary passion, Jiro Dreams of Sushi explores how it structures a life over decades. Like Kings of Pastry, this documentary is about an intense dedication to craft, one that adds an obsessive and compelling aspect to the world of food. As sushi master Jiro, “Japan’s national treasure” explains early in the doc:
“You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”
In the words of Roger Ebert, Jiro is “a man whose relationship with sushi wavers between love and madness.” A man of habit and mastery, Jiro’s dedication adds a new element to the discourse on food and experience. Rather than exploring imagination and sense memory like Achatz or Andres (below), Jiro’s sushi is one of complex simplicity as he evokes deep respect for the manner in which he coaxes flavor out of his food in his hunt for perfection.
This is my cheat. There is, at the present time, no deliciously creative documentary outlining the world and philosophies of Jose Andres, but there is no better subject for one. His creations range from the traditional foods of Spain (featured on his PBS show Made in Spain) to molecular creations like an airy philly cheesesteak that he once made on an wildly fun segment of The Late Late Show.
His enthusiasm is infectious, and his approach is unique. For his small, mini-restaurant é, Andres created a room to exemplify entering his mind. Card catalogs line the walls, showcasing food and ephemera; a ladder leads to nowhere; a lit bustier hangs in the corner; and some of his food is even served on a replica of his hand – food becoming the gateway to his mind.
In other words, just imagine a Being John Malkovich-esque documentary where his approach to food actually resonates on the screen because the experience extends well beyond the plate.