A four-hour doc about restaurants is one of the best movies of 2023
I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. I don’t do drugs. My side is food. My wife and I save so that once or twice a year we can go to an unusual restaurant and spend an hour or two eating what we hope will be a very delicious meal. We dream of places like the one documented in meticulous, fascinating detail Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgrosthe latest film from Frederick Wiseman.
At 93, Frederick Wiseman is a grand master of American documentaries. His subjects are often institutions; municipal governments; high schools, public libraries. In a way, Menu-Pleasures considers two interrelated institutions: the operation of the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Bois Sans Feuilles in the French countryside, and the multi-generational line of chefs who run it, including the patriarch, Michel Troisgros, and his sons César and Léo.
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Michel is the oldest Troisgros in the kitchen these days, but he is the grandson of another renowned French chef, Jean-Baptiste Troisgros. (Between Michel and Jean-Baptiste, Jean-Baptiste’s sons Pierre and Jean—Michel’s father—inherited the family business.) Michel remains the final arbiter in the kitchen at Le Bois Sans Feuilles and the other Troisgros restaurants .
At least for now. We learn in the film that Michel was once at the forefront of modern French cuisine. These days, César and Léo are taking on increasingly decisive roles in the kitchen; Wiseman sees as he tries to introduce their own adventurous ideas about cooking into the family menu. Michel accepts some of their suggestions and rejects others. (At the end of the film, he says to one “client”, as he calls all the customers at the restaurant, that he has begun to wonder if it is time give control to his sons.)
Food at a place like Le Bois Sans Feuilles is supposed to take us away from reality for a little while; to tempt us with unusual tastes and smells and sights. We are not supposed to consider the time and energy that went into a perfectly French cut lamb chop or an aesthetically pleasing stalk of asparagus. In fact, food that looks effortless requires a lot of effort. Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros is a film about that effort; about the hours and days and months and years of sweat, thought, choices, and practice required to produce something worthwhile – good food, sure, but really any a work of art.
The work that goes on in kitchens, even high-end ones, is no secret these days, not to anyone looking. Head chef or The chef’s menu or one of the countless other cooking shows on cable and streaming television. But these shows – and I watch a lot of them – strip down the process of preparing food to its most interesting and dramatic elements; the pot that spills, the steak that burns, the screaming matches between chefs who both want to use the last burner on the stove.
None of that is present Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros. Instead, Wiseman shows us four hours of the stuff that’s usually cut out of other cooking reality shows and documentaries, the real nitty-gritty process of what it takes to run a restaurant. of this kind to run. Container concept. Storage of materials. The preparation. The taste. The plating. The attendance. (Le Bois Sans Feuilles clients definitely have a lot of food allergies, and the staff has to be prepared to work around them all.)
I guess one could say that these moments are the fat that other, more traditional nonfiction works about cooking trim to get to “the good stuff.” Offer that Wiseman is like the chef who knows you won’t throw away those tricks; you save them and make a stew. Menu-Plasirs it is a glorious stew of ideas and images and conversations. Scene after scene is captivating. One segment, where members of the staff visit a facility that makes and ages cheese, could be a whole movie in itself for the interesting information it contains.
Although I highly doubt Wisemen or anyone else on the crew even considered it, Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros playing as a rebuke four hours to The Menu, the 2022 dark comedy about an ultra-exclusive restaurant not unlike Le Bois Sans Feuilles, the rude chef who runs it, and the repulsive diners who eat there. Intended as a satire healthy food world, it instead played as an extermination to anyone who might derive pleasure from making or eating good food. The creators of that movie apparently couldn’t think of a reason why someone would want to eat in this kind of establishment, and seemed to have complete disdain for anyone who would. . Wiseman gives four times’ worth of reasons; because when you have food in a place like Le Bois Sans Feuilles you taste all that work and think and process in every grammar on every plate.
At four hours, Wiseman’s film is certainly long. (Wiseman films usually are.) There have been a lot of complaints lately about long films. But Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros you have to go a long way to show you all the work that went into those plates of food. To cut out the trips to the pasture or the dairy farm or the wine cellar, it would be a waste of an essential part of the process to skip the part where the waiters go through each board’s substitution requests. And if one of these processes fails, Wiseman suggests, the whole system will go down.
During one of Michel’s many engaging, charming conversations over plates of mouth-watering food, he questions that his grandfather used to say “Cooking isn’t the movies.” In Menu-Plaisirs – Les Troisgroshowever, it is, and in a surprising way.
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