Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Review: Documentary ‘Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros’ Is Worth Watching

None of the cinematic tropes that have come to define today’s food documentaries — sweeping pans, glistening surfaces, a climactic symphony of strings — are present in Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros, a spellbinding new four-hour documentary about the three-starred Michelin restaurant Troisgros. In place of the usual grandiloquent aesthetic of luxury spun up by docuseries like Chef’s Table and Taco Chronicles, the film offers up the unvarnished, observational style of Frederick Wiseman.

The 93-year-old filmmaker — known for depicting the inner workings of societal institutions, including the New York Public Library, Boston’s City Hall, and a Massachusetts correctional institution — takes an exhaustive approach, filming hundreds of hours of footage and piecing them together without exposition or a dramatic arc. Sequences unfold organically and slowly, encouraging viewers to contemplate and engage with them in their own time. With his latest, Wiseman puts fine dining under his microscopic lens, demystifying it and providing a compellingly humanistic portrayal in its place.

Nestled in the idyllic French countryside, Troisgros boasts a remarkable legacy spanning four generations, and since 1968 when it was under the direction of brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros, it has maintained three Michelin stars — standing to beat the 55-year record held by Restaurant Paul Bocuse. (The Michelin Guide reevaluates restaurants annually and has been known to dock a star if its standards aren’t maintained, placing outsize stress on chefs, even causing some to voluntarily return their stars.) The restaurant’s current proprietor Michel Troisgros built upon the foundations of his father Pierre’s nouvelle cuisine — itself a radical departure from the heavier tradition of classic cuisine — by infusing it with his own perspective, inspired by Asian ingredients and his travels in Japan. Michel is in the process of passing the torch to his two sons César and Léo, who are also talented chefs.

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None of these contextual details are gleaned at the start of the film because Wiseman refrains from employing any explanatory narration, intertitles, or talking-head interviews. (This is a marked departure from Netflix’s Chef’s Table: France, one episode of which focused on Troisgros.) Instead, Wiseman drops us in the thick of the restaurant’s world, offering an egalitarian starting point that places all viewers, gourmands or not, on equal footing.

The film commences at the farmer’s market, where César and Léo chat with vendors, contemplate oyster mushrooms and strawberries, and decide whether to get mint or parsley. Every once in a while we get a close-up of the bounty — wild garlic, radishes, new carrots — but the sheer ordinariness of shopping for the day’s meals stands in stark contrast to greenmarkets as glamorously captured by influencers or depicted by Jon Favreau sniffing through the produce in the 2014 film Chef.

In subsequent scenes, César and Léo discuss their proposed new dishes with their father who politely grills them on every detail. What color is the asparagus? What temperature? How almondy is the almond sauce exactly? Minutiae and the seemingly mundane are Wiseman’s bread and butter and he uses them to construct a big picture, here a vivid portrait of the restaurant ecosystem, marked by the interconnected dynamics and exchanges among chefs, servers, producers, and customers — each an integral element relying on the another in a mostly symbiotic harmony.

The film moves sublimely through a loose structure: meal planning and preparation; lunch service at Troisgros restaurant led by César; service at sister-restaurant La Colline du Colombier run by Léo; and then relevant digressions to various producers (winemakers, cheesemakers, cattle farmers, all local) before returning to Troisgros for an evening dinner service. Though pieced together from footage taken on different days, the arrangement simulates a sort of day-in-the-life of a restaurant chef. Privileged with ample time in the kitchen, viewers are treated to an astonishing display of culinary talent and technique. We observe the shucking of oysters, basting of the calf brains, sauteing of frog legs, and tourneeing of potatoes. One chef delicately paints squid ink onto the petals of John Dory, which has been steamed and shaped into a rose, and another coils thin strands of puff pastry into a bird’s nest for the tromp-l’oeil “egg” dessert — both Troisgros signatures.

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It is all irrefutably mesmerizing, imbued with a near ASMR-like calm. Beyond whetting the appetite, Menus-Plaisirs satisfies by evoking the sense of gratification derived from acknowledging the immense effort invested in preparing the meal. But underneath the serene rhythms of the restaurant lies a tension between guests and the chefs, laborers and consumers, which Wiseman subtly illustrates by shifting focus to the diners, as service begins in hour two. The transition from the back to front of the house becomes a jarring interruption, one that also emphasizes the profound division between those making the food and those consuming it. Troisgros doesn’t come cheap, with a full tasting menu costing over €410 ($448 USD) and à la carte options reaching into the hundreds, and Wiseman artfully underscores how the needs of high-end hospitality can run up against creative autonomy, as when the maitre d’ rattles off an exceptionally long list of guests’ dietary preferences to the chefs (including a woman who will only eat chicken, and another who insists on having strawberries figure into her dessert).

Indeed, if the food is considered art, these diners are its patrons: mostly white, upper-middle-class European retirees and wealthy travelers. Among them, a group of four English speakers stands out during the dinner scene, as they compare a beautifully composed plate to a successful business transaction, reducing something special and nuanced to crude commerce — the harsh irony magnified by the chefs’ diligence we witnessed in the kitchen moments earlier.

The diners’ remarks also stand in contrast to the silence that largely envelops the film, a stillness that is atypical of the frenzy of restaurant kitchens and the attendant cacophony. And in many ways, the world depicted by Wiseman seems almost utopian, detached from the harsh realities and concerns of today’s restaurant industry — such as chaotic workplace cultures and demanding environments alleged at establishments like Noma and Eleven Madison Park. These issues exist only at the fringes of the film, as in a fleeting moment glimpsed when the maitre d’ or head of the front-of-house staff emphasize a zero-tolerance policy towards misconduct and bullying.

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In this sense Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros presents a poetically optimistic vision, with Troisgros an idealized representation of what a restaurant can and should be. In the last decade, contemporary culture elevated chefs to the status of rock stars, but it has been quite some time since they were beheld as artists — Wiseman does just, positing food as art, and these chefs in relentless lifelong pursuit of its perfection.

Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros opened November 22 in New York City and will expand to select cities nationwide.

Elissa Suh is a writer and editor based in New York. She publishes the Moviepudding newsletter, dedicated to exploring the intersections of food and film.

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