SIFF DocFest: Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros – “Cuisine is Not the Movies”

It all started with one dish. Escalope de saumon à l’oseille Troisgros, or Salmon with Sorrel Sauce. All it took to escape the tradition of the haute cuisine that ruled French cooking and move into the age of the nouvelle cuisine was a no-stick, teflon pan; a buttery cream sauce with leaves; a lightly cooked filet of salmon, and immaculate timing. That was worth three Michelin Stars for the restaurant Troisgros, who have never once received less than that full-star rating. Anthony Bourdain once called it “one of the great inventions of the 20th Century,” culinary hobbyists consider the restaurant above artistry and food; for them, this is a philosophy and a religion.

When you’ve been doing something at the highest level for so long, there is no longer the possibility for error. Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is Nonagenarian filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s 46th film. Wiseman continues to make the most efficient documentary films… four-hour studies of people working and completing simple tasks and having full conversations. If documentary filmmaking is an act of editing, choosing not to edit work processes, is also an invaluable editing choice, of which Wiseman is the greatest practitioner. His films are also products of his faith in Judaism and unrelenting curiosity, still wryly observing life at the peak of his abilities at the spry age of 93.

Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is a staggering idealistic work of documentary filmmaking about best-in-the-world culinary masterpieces. If you have cut your teeth on reality cooking shows, none of that drama can be found here. There are no mistakes, there is no yelling, and there is no dramatic music bedded for tension or any other feeling. The process you get is the exacting process of the restaurant. If someone is going to tell a story, you are going to sit and listen to the whole story. If they are going to prepare a part of a meal, you are going to watch, with the atmosphere of the kitchen as your soundtrack, as they painstakingly ensure that every step of the process is exactly right.

What’s eye-opening about the Troisgros process is not that they are immune to mistakes. What is inspiring is that they take every preparation needed so those mistakes are impossible. We get gorgeous footage of the outdoor markets and produce available in their region of Central France. In no hurry, we’ll spend time with a herd of cows and just watch them graze, and watch as a line of goats get milked. We’ll go to the vineyards and see how the wine gets made. We do not just tour the process for making the elaborate tray with dozens of cheese options, we go to where the cheese is made, and watch it get scrubbed with salt water, and find out what makes the cheese from the region orange.

There are moments of startling specificity. It’s about how food is plated. They do not just perfectly construct a dessert and then put a beautiful gold leaf on top of it. They construct the dessert and then put the leaf on top of it, and realize that a slight wind is enough to disturb the leaf. That’s good, say the chefs, an imperfection means the dish is alive and immediately relevant in front of the patron. They will just plan for the leaf to move as it’s set down at the table. This is like a revelation: even the imperfections are so thoughtfully planned and orchestrated as to be part of a philosophical design. This is food but this is also high art.

There is culinary joy in all the shots of the food, of course, everything you see is the most perfect version of that dish that can be made at that moment. But it’s not just a Food Network-styled showcase of food gone the right way. It’s more important to watch the processes behind the food. Wiseman directs with great intelligence here, realizing that the food is not the point. The story of the food and the journey it takes, from its source to the kitchen to the preparation process, to the plating, to the story the staff tells the diners as they get ready for the next course, is what must be captured by the camera.

Four hours is a long time for going to the movies. It’s not that long in the grand scheme of the sixty-year history of what many consider the most influential restaurant in the world. It cannot be the movie it is trying to be and be any shorter than it is. The length is the point, exhibiting a full day in the life of a culinary dream. Wiseman, much like his subjects, continues to astound audiences with immaculate attention to detail, understanding that the full humanist story of food and its full journey from the earth to the table, is what has to be filmed. Anything less would be compromising the story. There is a reason you must make movies for foodies and not just television. This is the reason.

If a movie can be awarded Michelin stars, Wiseman is getting all three. Our best documentarian has made a masterpiece about the world’s greatest food. It doesn’t get much better than that. Like dining at Troisgros, this is going to take all day and you will savor every course of the menu.


Leave a Reply