product review

Conquistadors of the Useless?

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as mentioned, i recently watched Lutz Hachmeister’s THREE STARS, the 2011 documentary about the worlds of nine Michelin-starred chefs from around the world. i went into it hoping that it might match the artfulness, understatement, and what i have called the “technical drama” of Gereon Wetzels’ El Bulli: Cooking in Process, but unfortunately it really didn’t. it’s overlong, poorly paced, and ultimately boring. on one level the film spreads itself too thin, tries to show us too much by following so many characters, and the end result is that we don’t really get an in-depth portrait of any of the chefs, of their practice, their inspirations, their philosophy. it is as if the film cannot quite decide whether it is more about the chefs or more about the Michelin star system – a distinction which one might not think need be made, but as a viewer one becomes conscious of a need for greater focus. the film has a confused and erratic feeling, as if the director had not taken enough time to think about what he wanted to do, or why at a given time we are being shown what we are seeing.

most of the shots of the cooks at work feel disjointed, and are often sparsely subtitled, so we miss much of the dialogue amongst the kitchen staff and their activities remain as obscure and un-illuminated as had we never been granted this “behind the scenes” vantage point. although the fact that we never really get any sense about what is so special about -these- chefs is perhaps important to the overall project, if only (as i suspect) accidentally so. at one point a chef (i think it was René Redzepi of Noma) states that no one really knows what separates a 2-star restaurant from a 3-star restaurant, and this casts an interesting light over the entirety of the films proceedings. you see all of these incredibly devoted, talented chefs throwing themselves into their work, both motivated and refusing to be motivated by the pursuit (or maintenance) of their 3rd star; it is not so much that they are chasing the third star as that they are haunted by it, by its elusive and almost arbitrary character.

so you don’t know why they’re special, and they don’t know why they’re special (or why they are or are not recognized for their specialness), and this contributes to an overall feeling of meaninglessness about the proceedings. and frankly you start to wonder why you’re even watching. you’re not learning all that much, and the chefs themselves seem mostly to be a pretty unsympathetic lot. they are tired (they -look- tired) and in many cases seem trapped in the world in which they operate, with little sense of proportion, which may be inevitable when one ties up one’s life with the production of gross luxury. to be sure they share an admirable if slightly maniacal devotion, their sacrifices for their work are real and tremendous, but somehow the trope of giving one’s blood  and sweat to ‘make other people happy’ and enliven the deep human connection that is forged in cooking for and feeding another begins to seem distorted and almost parodic when one is reminded that this is all about turning out 3oo$ meals that require reservations months in advance.* and when Redzepi’s earnest declaration that “No one is making the money they deserve to make” (paraphrase) is book-ended by scenes of Jean-George Vongerichten contemplating his upcoming real estate development from the roof of the Trump Tower and another chef drifting on his yacht, the rupture of sense and meaning is pretty much complete. (it’s like Fitzcarraldo if the end result was to serve reverse-engineered dodo eggs to Brian Mulroney on his dirigible.)

so while i don’t think that Three Stars is  a good movie, the more i think about it, the more i find interesting the ways in which it is bad. we are drawn in by the allure of the esoteric and exclusive world of high end chefs, only to find it a pallid, confused, and meaningless place. it is as if the movie tricks us into realizing that what these people do is actually not important, and we are not interested**, by the metatextual force of its own accidental inadequacy as a film.

* to be clear, i am not opposed to the existence of such meals per se, it is only the pretence of nobility that i find highlights the absurdity of the situation.

** the irony is that some of these people actually are pretty interesting. Redzepi and the Arzaks in particular, as well as Olivier Roellinger, who is probably the most interesting and sympathetic character in the film – a French chef who shortly after earning his 3rd star closed down his restaurant and effectively turning his back on the whole system, on the grounds that he was basically just too tired. his perspective on Michelin, on being a chef, and his overall bearing are a refreshing addition to the film, and it would have been nice to spend more time with him.

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product review, resto oh oh

Cooking in Process

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word on the street is Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is a little on the boring side. these are the reviews, mostly secondhand, that i have been encountering since i viewed the film, and i am thinking that this may be precisely why i enjoyed it as much as i did. in fact, it may also be why i might consider it a “good documentary” as opposed to “such a documentary,” which is how i feel about Kings of Pastry.

if you recall, my main complaint about the latter is that it is foremost a tale of human drama, of triumph and tragedy, and singleminded devotion to an ideal; not an exploration of pastry as a craft, an esoteric set of manoeuvres and the traditions, institutions, appetites and desires that give them meaning.

i also thought that it was clumsy and ugly.

but it is exactly this foregrounding of human drama, and its articulation within a narrative arc, that is absent from El Bulli: Cooking In Progress. the film is not an exposé, nor an exhaustive “how do they do that” procedural breakdown, but it is nonetheless very much about the work of El Bulli. El Bulli in process, not solely in progress, as the title declares.

of course the double  meaning of “Cooking In Progress” is apropos – Ferran Adria conceived of El Bulli as an avant-garde restaurant (or did, until it closed),  and was explicitly concerned with advancing the field. “Have we done this before?” echoes  throughout a creative process that is simultaneously concerned not to succumb to the allure of the merely novel. whether Adria/El Bulli succeeds in avoiding the trap of cooking that is clever yet devoid of substance is not for me  judge, as i never have and never will eat at El Bulli, but the director, Gereon Wetzel, manages to capture and communicate this tension in subtle but effective ways. the film may almost be said to be a technical drama, lingering over the careful deliberations of Adrià’s creative team, their experiments, discussions, and negotiations, both with each other and with the ingredients that they are transforming. there are no talking heads in Cooking in Progress, no confessions, no expository dialogue to break up the (slow, deliberate) “action,” which takes place over the course of the three acts.

the film opens as El Bulli closes for the season, with the team packing up their equipment and moving into Barcelona, to the “lab” (this is neither analogy nor affectation. the research space of Adrià’s inner circle – Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, and Eugeni de Diego – is equally identifiably lab and kitchen, with burners and skillets, thermal immersion circulators and nitrogen baths in equal measure.), where they will spend the next few months working with various ingredients to see what can be done with them – no menus are assembled here, only a highly methodical free play with the properties of various foodstuffs. “free” in the sense that the conventional limits (both in terms of use/application and actual physical properties) of the food are disregarded, or at least re-evaluated, although the strict assessment, detail and inscription of the results of the experiments places a different set of constraints upon the activity. it is a sort of operationalized, material brainstorming.

following this, we return to Cala Montjoi, the site of El Bulli, where preparations begin for reopening – the training and organization of the staff, the assemblage and fine-tuning of the menu. finally, we see the restaurant in progress, although only in a very restricted fashion. rarely do we see the patrons in the act of enjoying their food; they arrive, take pictures, revel in the aura of the establishment, and while they eat, we retreat to the kitchen, where dishes are constructed, expedited, and perpetually re-evaluated. it is in this passage of the movie that we have perhaps the least sense of time – are these the services of a single night, a week, a month? suddenly the season winds up, the staff begins to close the restaurant down, and the film ends on exactly the note upon which it opened. it is a but a cycle. and we realize that what we have been watching is an exploration of the routine – it is not a tale of genius or mad science, the spectacular fancies of high gastronomy, but of the routine work that goes on behind the glittering and often quite challenging facade.

if there is a climax to the film, it is one that can only be identified retrospectively, like, “oh, i guess that was the clincher.” in one late scene, at the end of a seating, Adrià mutters (to whom? no one? does it matter?) something to the effect of “We’re still doing okay” (i apologize for the lack of a direct quote, but you may take solace that it was certainly something equally mundane, and translated already, so don’t get too hung up) which as the movie ends shortly after, one realizes is the resolution of whatever dramatic arc the film has accommodated, as well as a summation of Adrià’s own personal mission as a chef with El Bulli. indeed, the majority of the emotional tenor of the film is provided through the handful of subtle exchanges between and amongst Adrià and his team. scenes where one tastes some preparation, a dish or component thereof, and in the moments of silence that follow, one begins to feel the egos at work, the economy of creative energy, authority, ambition, all in a protracted stare. but there is something in how these are played (or how they are presented), that the result is less often melodrama (there is no chilling canned string section or Law & Order knell to signal the import of the situation) than it is an awkward sort of comedy that i think ultimately lends the movie a lot of its charm.

for all the behind-the-scenes action, however, the actual functioning of El Bulli remains somewhat opaque. we see some of what goes into the mystifying dishes of almonds and olive oil, tangerine and ice shards, mint dust, whatever, but a certain mysterious quality is retained intact. it gives the interested party just enough to see how the spirit is enmeshed with the instrumentation, without becoming bogged down in technical detail. thusly is the mystique of the restaurant allowed to persist.

i expect that this measured, unsensational approach to the documentary may not be for everyone, but i myself found it quite refreshing, in the way that one doesn’t leave the theatre feeling like one has been told a tired story by way of a cinematic machinery at pains to proclaim its unvarnished verité. in a strange way, Wetzel manages to give life (a human life) to a subject matter that, like Adrià’s denatured creations, could seem quite cold and unapproachable, both alienated and alienating, but does so without resorting to the broad, garish, strokes of documentary bathos.

at 108mins, the film runs a little long, and near the end i found myself growing a little antsy, but that is no great flaw. i suppose i can’t say much more than that the El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is interesting if you are interested, although i didn’t think i was, really, until it turned out that i am, rather. ha.

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product review

I Don’t Suppose My “I Was Hoping for a More Challenging Analysis of Cream Puffs” Complaint Will Find Much Favour.


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so Kings of Pastry, more or less as promised, provides an engaging, entertaining look at the concours Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which is less a competition in the “there can be only one” sense than it is a sort of final exam for pastry chefs, a more exclusive and prestigious ‘red seal’ for the profession.

the characters are likeable, the human drama genuinely compelling, the tension high, and yes, there are lots of grown men crying. altogether though, what Kings of Pastry fails to be (in my opinion), is interesting. but to be fair, i don’t think this was their goal in the first place. it fits comfortably into a particular mould – the narrative of obsession, the balancing of family life and emotional health with devotion to one’s craft, is familiar and effective. but the film is not really about obsession, it doesn’t think about obsession, it merely features it. we are given no particular insight – or maybe only the barest flashes – into the world of pastry and pâtissiers, and for a film about people striving to be the “best craftsmen in France,” we learn very little about the craft itself. Continue reading

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