Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paul LaCoste's STEP UP TO THE PLATE: fine French eatery moves from père to fils

Reminiscent in some ways of last year's change-comes-to-a-fancy-restaurant doc, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the movie under consideration here is maybe one hundred times as human and humane. Whereas El Bulli seemed most concer-ned with food as art (oh, the colors, the patterns, the tex-tures, the shapes!), STEP UP TO THE PLATE (Entre les Bras is its native French title), tracks a three-generation French family for whom (very) good cooking has meant its livelihood, worldwide acclaim, and perhaps, for the father-and-son chefs we meet here, its deepest love.

Filmmaker Paul Lacoste, shown at left, has done a swell job of making his film inclusive -- of the restaurants (there's another one in Japan!) its chefs, their family, friends and community, and of course, the food. And while it is that food that has made the family name, this documentary, unlike a number of others, would not qualify for the relatively new genre of "food porn" because it is about so much more than the thrill of merely stuffing our faces with exotic, expensive, fancy-to-foolish cuisine.

Among these other, and to TrustMovies' mind, much more interesting topics, Lacoste engages with the old bugaboo of the senior male retiring, stepping down, and allowing the heir to take center stage. While nothing about this is shoved in our faces, the scenes that show dad, Michel, tasting one or another of the concoctions served up by his son, Sébastien (note dad's expression, above), turn the movie into a whole new mini-genre you might call edible Oedipal.  

We meet the wives/mothers, and some of the community in which the Brases labor. There is no narration to either clog things up or make them easier for us to understand. But for the most past, M. Lacoste keeps us abreast of what's happening and what this means. France has long been considered a rigid place in terms of ideas such as feminism and a woman's place. The restaurant business would seem to underscore this, as the women we see here are all wives and mothers -- even though it was originally grandma who did the actual cooking that inspired Michel. In the restaurants, while we see an occasional female underling, women are relegated to the role of hostess.

There is also a certain amount, I would think, of whitewashing going on here, as in nearly all documentaries about people and their businesses (that's the restaurant, above). But this is offset by the sense of reality and generosity conveyed by both the filmmaker and his subjects. We get some history, too, via the grandparents who are still alive: "Michel didn't go out to play; he always liked to hang around the kitchen."

How a chef creates is expressed quite well here, too, particularly via the dishes Sébastien hopes to produce for the Japanese location. What we see being made appears to be more organic, genuine, richer and more filling than what was shown us in El Bulli. One of these dishes is milk-based and then topped with all sorts of flavors, from the savory to the sweet. (That's the gorgeous Gargouillou salad, above, and something else, the name of which I am not certain, below.)

The differences in philosophy between Michel and Sébastien are apparent, thought not explored in any depth (food critics will no doubt engage in this as the son makes his mark on the restaurant in the time to come), and the film ends with a lovely little homage to mom's blackberry jam and cheese.

Step Up to the Plate, an appropriate title now set in quite a different context (from The Cinema Guild and running 84 minutes), opens this Friday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad cinemas, and will begin its limited released in another ten cities next week. You can check all currently scheduled playdates here. (Above is shown perhaps the next chef in this famous food family's chain: Michel's grandson.)

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