With the Food Network and other cable programs dishing out non-stop cooking shows, celebrity chefs, food contests and recipes (and some of dubious merit), many food documentarians have gravitated to what some critics term foodie-porn.
Paul Lacoste’s “Step Up to the Plate” succumbs to this approach. Foodie-porn takes the form of a kind of culinary idolatry where the camera takes up residence in the kitchen of a world-renowned chef to gaze in awe at the construction of plates of ravishing, mouth-watering exquisiteness.
This personality-infused cinema requires a top chef, preferably foreign and on some exotic far-flung locate — as witness “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” or “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” —and with full access to his “secrets.”
Naturally no one in the world can replicate those “secrets” so they remain very safe.
“Step Up to the Plate” is the silly English title for a French film those own title, “Entre les Bras” or “Between the Bras,” highlights the film’s ostensible subject — the passing of the torch between Michel Bras, founder of the three-Michelin-star restaurant “Michel Bras” located in Laguiole, France, and his son and protégée Sebastien.
In fact, the moment the camera enters Michel Bras kitchen it loses sight of that subject. Oh yes, father and son do confer about this dish or that and how to create a signature dish for the son to call his own after the “hand-over.”
But like any porn, the editor keeps cutting away to the film’s pleasure zones. For instance, the film opens with a meticulous time-lapse construction of Michel Bras’ amazing salad plate, “Gargouillou des légumes” (pictured left).
You are witness to pure art — the painting of a plate with smears of herb-infused sauces and dabs of fresh ingredients including edible flowers. Slowly it builds into a masterpiece for the eye and, no doubt, the taste buds.
This is the movie’s “money shot.” Indeed, the movie never really recovers from this. Only in a sequence later, in Japan where Bras opened another restaurant in 2002, do you witness anything like this marvelous artistry.
Lacoste dutifully includes interviews, photos and home movies to pay lip service to his subject. You never get the full picture but Bras apparently took over the eponymous restaurant from his mother in 1978 before moving to a remote, modernist complex build in 1992 where most of the filming takes place.
The restaurant, perched atop an isolated hill that overlooks the bucolic Aubrac region, is a temple to the chef’s cuisine and ego with a kitchen the size of a barn and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that afford a panoramic view of the countryside from whence he sources much of his produce.
The kitchen staff at times looks like it outnumbers the patrons. Food is prepared methodically and thoughtfully without the hectic activity one associates with restaurant kitchens where sweaty line cooks and sous chefs battle pots and pans to hurry meals to diners’ tables.
No, a quiet, minimalist certitude hovers over the entire meal preparation at Michel Bras. Even the accompanying music (by Karol Beffa) echoes that minimalism.
How is the son ever going to equal, much less top, this? You won’t find out here. At fade-out, the torch hasn’t quite passed from father to son. The father still insists on visiting his chefs each morning; otherwise he will cease to exist, he says.
When the camera looks into Sebastien’s eyes or those of his wife, you wonder how much choice family members ever really had in their professions. They say they did. But how? You see a photo of Sebastien as a small child wearing a white chef’s hat and uniform.
So the film dodges its own subject, content with gaping lovingly at dish preparations and the hours (well boiled down) that go into the creation of each new dish. It watches the Bras, pere et fils, brood over their cooking like artists studying an incomplete canvas.
It did no good to eat dinner before watching “Step Up to the Plate” by the way. I was hungry again after seeing this film.
Opens: October 12, 2012 (Cinema Guild)
Production companies: Everybody On Deck, Le-Lokal, Jaime Mateus-Tique, Jour2Fete
Director: Paul Lacoste
Producers: Gaelle Bayssiere, Didier Creste
Director of photography: Yvan Quehec
Music: Karol Beffa
Editor: Anthony Brinig
No rating, 90 minutes