A dish served with emotion
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 21, 2012
If you’re used to the kind of culinary shows on the Food Network -- many of which are characterized by screaming and high-stakes cooking competitions -- “Step Up to the Plate” might disappoint. The documentary about father-and-son French chefs Michel and Sebastien Bras is characterized by a languorous pace, an air of Zen-like calm, and gorgeous shots of natural scenery and sunrises. Although some scenes are set in the kitchen of Michel and Sebastien’s top-Michelin-rated restaurant, it isn’t so much about food as it is about life.
As such, it’s pretty delicious.
Filmed over the course of a year, and separated into chapters titled “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter” and “Spring,” the documentary by Paul Lacoste is ostensibly concerned with Michel’s looming retirement, as he prepares to hand the reins of his business over to Sebastien, who has worked with his father for 15 years. While that dynamic naturally lends itself to a certain amount of drama -- unsurprisingly, the two men don’t always see eye to eye -- there are no shouting matches or meltdowns. “Step Up to the Plate” is the story of two great artists, each of whom genuinely respects the other.
What fun is that? Surprisingly, a great deal, as long as you calibrate your expectations to the film’s subtle, almost loving appreciation of the culinary art.
One scene, shot from above, shows the construction of a salad, beginning with a few painterly smears of dressing on a plate. (If Michel and Sebastien argue over anything, it’s plating; their dishes are visually stunning.) As the salad grows to include what look like edible flowers, you’ll notice that no leaf or piece of green appears twice. It’s a dazzling, mouthwatering sequence.
(Note: I watched this movie on an empty stomach. Bad, bad idea. Eat first, or if you can’t, make sure that you have reservations afterward at a nice restaurant.)
Structurally, “Step Up to the Plate” follows Sebastien as he endeavors to perfect a single dish, working and reworking it in minute detail over the course of several months, and eventually presenting it to his father for a critique. It looks like a dessert, but even Sebastien says he isn’t sure what to call it.
Over the course of the film, the dish changes dramatically. While visiting the Japanese branch of his family’s restaurant, Sebastien alters it to incorporate local ingredients, switching from a paper-thin fried bread crust to a crunchy strip of fried rice paste.
Yes, all of this is a bit inside-baseball-y. But for foodies -- or, really, for anyone who appreciates watching a creative master at work -- it’s great, revealing stuff. Toward the end, Sebastien presents his dish, which by this point has morphed into three separate dishes, to a workshop audience.
As he explains it, the dish isn’t simply something to eat anymore. It’s a story, combining ingredients from his childhood with ones from his adulthood, that evokes a response that is as emotional as it is gustatory.
The movie kind of does the same thing. It’s the story of changing chefs and changing seasons. It looks at food as not just something that nourishes our bodies, but as something that enriches our lives and our relationships.
Contains nothing objectionable. In French with English subtitles.