Frederick Wiseman Reveals the Mighty Substance of Culinary Luxury

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The joy of eating in France has long been that one can do so superbly at a reasonable price. Isaac Babel’s 1934 short story “Rue Dante” records:

We ate lunch at a tavern across the street from the Halles aux vins, frequented by cattle dealers and wine merchants. Village girls in slippers served us lobster in red sauce, roast rabbit stuffed with garlic and truffles, and wine you could find nowhere else.

Fine dining is another story. Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 film, “The Taking of Power by Louis XIV,” shows how the rise of haute cuisine was intended to provide not just food fit for a king but food that only a king could afford. For all the pleasures it offered, the sumptuous craft was also part of an explicit scheme to bankrupt the nobility, who were expected to emulate the magnificence of the Royal Court. Thus absurd extravagance has been built into the gastronomical high arts from the start, and it’s on ample display in Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, “Menus-Plaisirs—Les Troisgros,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum. The film goes inside Le Bois sans Feuilles, a sanctuary-like restaurant belonging to the Troisgros family, in the village of Ouches (pronounced “oosh”), in the upper reaches of the Loire Valley.

Le Bois sans Feuilles is one of French cuisine’s temples of jaw-dropping excess, but Wiseman isn’t there to mock. The nonagenarian filmmaker, with more than forty documentaries under his belt, dating to 1967, is the cinema’s supreme analyst of institutions—hospitals, government bureaus, communities, schools. In subjecting the Troisgros enterprise to his discerning gaze, he comes under the spell of its aesthetic sublimity and finds the persuasive logic of its apparent absurdity, the grand utility of its seeming frivolity. What he discovers there, in short, is the madness of art yoked to the demands of business, the pressure of money, making the enterprise akin to architecture or, yes, to movies. But “Menus-Plaisirs” doesn’t yield to facile analogies. Wiseman, who is the film’s director and editor, sticks to specifics in the course of the film (which runs four hours), paying meticulous attention to the manner in which the food gets to the table. Along the way, he constructs two overarching stories that lend the movie dramatic tension: one about the evolution of the Troisgros establishment, the other about the material transformation of the food itself.

A bit of background: I’ve known the name of Troisgros since around 1980, when I was in college and learning to have fun with cooking. I came across a book called “The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros,” which had recently been published in the U.S. At the time, I was pretty into French nouveautés of all stripes—the New Wave in film and the philosophers (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and company) in whose work I was majoring. So I borrowed the book from the library and found that, unlike other French cookbooks, whose recipes I could adapt for a dormitory kitchen, the Troisgros book was both fascinating and unusable, because the ingredients it called for and the techniques that it demanded were totally out of reach. The “nouvelle cuisine” approach propounded by the Troisgros brothers seemed to be founded on emphasizing natural ingredients but in utterly unnatural ways—a mystery and a paradox that I viewed with bewildered admiration. Though the term “nouvelle cuisine” doesn’t come up in the discussions in “Menus-Plaisirs,” the style’s vectors of simplicity and complexity, nature and culture still figure in the work of the movie’s protagonists, Michel Troisgros (Pierre’s son, born in 1958) and Michel’s sons, César and Léo, who work with him. César is the head chef of the family’s main restaurant, Le Bois sans Feuilles (its name means “the forest without leaves”); Léo is the head chef of a second, more casual Troisgros restaurant in the vicinity.

The movie plunges straight into the agricultural heart of things, opening with an extended sequence at an outdoor farmers’ market in the family’s home town of Roanne, five miles from Ouches. There, César, Léo, and several colleagues do their shopping, for such basics as lettuce, fennel, chives, and radishes, in addition to such exotica as wild watercress, garlic mustard, and gigantic and intricate oyster mushrooms, about the size of basketballs, which one of the group likens to a sculpture and which César plans to cook whole. A meeting of the three chefs at a table in the Troisgros family’s brasserie, in Roanne, plays out like a story conference: they decide to use a river fish (sourcing is an issue, and pike is chosen over zander), and settle on making a char soufflé and also quenelles. César has the spur-of-the-moment inspiration to add a piece of eel to one of these recipes but notes that it’s “not easy.” This warning is borne out much later in the film, in a way that gives a similar thrill to seeing a scene performed that one has previously known only from reading the script: César instructs a sous-chef on his complicated technique for cleaning and preparing the eels, with emphasis on a rapid but delicate maneuver: “dropping the weight of the knife.” By the time the eels come into play, Wiseman has established Le Bois sans Feuilles as a character in its own right. The restaurant is connected to the family’s hotel, where diners can stay, and the lavish compound is a miniature capital of clean-lined modernism, built in and around an old house that the family renovated. The restaurant’s tables are widely spaced, and the furnishings are low on ornament, a restraint that shifts diners’ attention to panoramic views out of floor-to-ceiling windows. (Michel Troisgros admits that the place is “luxurious . . . but just because the trees are beautiful, the light is beautiful.”) The pared-down aesthetic and the splendid natural setting are anything but incidental; they’re visual manifestations of the ideals that prevail in the kitchen.

No one gives Wiseman and his minimal crew, which includes the cinematographer James Bishop and the sound recordist Jean-Paul Mugel, a tour of the kitchen. As always in his films, Wiseman excludes any acknowledgment of his presence. Similarly, because he never uses superimposed titles to indicate who’s who, one must piece this information together from moments when people are referred to by their names or introduce themselves to others. In much modern documentary filmmaking, the so-called fly-on-the-wall method results in a kind of faux objectivity, but in Wiseman’s work this is compensated for by the relentlessly personal unity of his œuvre. The peculiarity and the glory of his films is that, although they’re observationally rigorous to the point of rigidity, they’re also all more or less the same film, from the sixties through the present day. His analyses of institutions—in such films as “Hospital,” “Welfare,” “Model,” “Near Death,” “Boxing Gym,” and “In Jackson Heights”—form, in effect, a career-long overcoming of the mind-body dichotomy. Wiseman shows how daily life is shaped by the power of intellect and judgment—by debate and decree, interrogation and discussion—and reveals the extensive webs of knowledge, thought, and even passion that underlie seemingly opaque or impersonal systems. What matters isn’t so much whether the world is exactly so; more important, Wiseman, in his documentary investigations, finds what he’s looking for, or, rather, working like a fiction filmmaker, he persuasively makes his personal vision of the world seem incontrovertibly real. His power to do so, as in “Menus-Plaisirs,” depends as much on his audacious editing as on his way of filming.

In French, the title “Menus-Plaisirs” contains a pun, because “menu,” in addition to being a restaurant’s bill of fare, is also an adjective meaning “slight” or “trifling.” (It comes from the same Latin root as the word “minute.”) For Wiseman, the “small pleasures” of the title are highly concentrated distillations of mighty exertions, from the grand and carefully catalogued tradition of French cooking to the immediate tradition of the Troisgros family restaurants (now in its fourth generation). The film delves ever deeper into the elements that make the restaurant what it is: agriculture and animal husbandry; the exceedingly specific blends of science and art that go into the making of cheese and wine; the virtually hospital-level procedures required to keep a kitchen clean and safe; the business smarts needed to bring such a complex affair to commercial viability; the theatrical flair vital to stage-manage an experience for diners; and, at the heart of it all, the inventive passion and artistic imagination of a creative chef.

Every one of these elements gets dramatic exposition in “Menus-Plaisirs,” as does the role of architecture in the family’s culinary enterprise. Michel shows two diners around the kitchen, explaining that it’s built very open, “like a little tennis court,” with no hoods or dividers to break up the space. This, he adds, optimizes a particular kind of humane, nonauthoritarian leadership: “You can manage the kitchen without raising your voice.” The open kitchen is also a sort of culinary panopticon. Every stage of food preparation—from the cleaning of fish to the chopping of vegetables, the mincing of spices, the sautéing of kidneys, the laying of fish slices as though in a floral arrangement, and, lastly, the placement of garnishes with tweezers—displays the refined craft of each staff member and reflects Michel’s uniformly orienting supervision. Technique is crucial, and the movie’s most conflict-ridden moment involves Michel’s reproach to a sous-chef regarding the technique of cleaning brains.

The Troisgros kitchen combines the experimental exactitude of a laboratory with the creative spirit of an artist’s studio and the tensely expectant energy of the wings of a theatre, and Wiseman is alive to it all. The intensity with which the kitchen staff calibrates the finishing of dishes for simultaneous delivery to a tableful of diners is a drama in itself. With an architectural eye, Wiseman focusses on a small liminal space, between kitchen and dining room, where, in one direction, the waitstaff puts on a game face and, in the other, relaxes it. The most elaborately dramatic scene, however, is one in which César gives his father, Michel, a new dish he’s worked on, of kidneys with sriracha and passion fruit. The pair’s alertness to the nuances of taste—the degree of spice, the balance of flavors, the demands of presentation against those of quantity, the choice of an accompanying vegetable—rises to a high pitch of fervor, undergirded by the implicit aura of a generational struggle. For all that Wiseman remains invisible, one can’t fail to sense a salute from one artist to two others.

The movie’s most vertiginous sequences follow the Troisgros family to the rarefied domains of some of their suppliers. There is a cattle farmer who grazes his cows naturally, pays careful attention to the regrowth of grass on which they graze, and believes that the artisanal raising of livestock should be recognized with the kind of officially controlled labelling that the wine industry receives. A goat farmer, raising the animals not for meat but for their milk, displays a similar commitment to their well-being and their natural life cycles. The manager of a small, central cheese-aging facility holds forth on the finer points of temperature and natural yeasts. A tomato farmer celebrates the biodiversity of his property and the way it reflects his vines’ need for sunlight. In effect, the Troisgros family, with their demand for superlative ingredients and their ability to pay for them, inspires and encourages the perpetuation of traditional agriculture through the methods of modern science. Here, the arts of fine dining reach not only deep into the soil but far back into the primordial wonder of the agricultural basis of urban life itself—and proves the agricultural basis of the word “culture.”

Money is at the core of the story, and Wiseman doesn’t leave it out. The Troisgros enterprise is a major business, and the money that sustains it is discussed onscreen, as with the mentions of seating fifty-four diners for a lunch costing more than three hundred euros per head, and of bottles of wine that sell for ten, fifteen, even twenty thousand euros. At one point, the intoxicatingly lavish greenery surrounding the main restaurant is dominated by the obnoxiously loud machine noise of what might be a weed whacker or lawnmower but turns out to be a helicopter, conveying wealthy customers to a designated area heliport, trimmed like a golf-course green. Moreover, defying the stereotype of great chefs who expect diners to eat what they’re given, the Troisgros family is very liberal with substitutions and grants wide latitude to diners’ needs and requests, whether involving food allergies, aversions (as to lamb or offal), or mere preferences.

A restaurant is also a business of personalities, and of personal relationships. Extended scenes of Michel working the room and greeting longtime customers go beyond glad-handing schmaltz to substantive discussions of his practices and influences and, above all, to his unfolding, for diners, of the Troisgros family’s multigenerational story. His current restaurant takes the place of the original restaurant, across the street from the train station in Roanne, in a building that the family rented for more than eighty years. Michel says that he built the new place for the sake of his sons, but that it also made him feel as if he were no longer in his father’s “footsteps”—that the new place, in the countryside, provides a new kind of inspiration. “It freed up everything,” he notes. That new inspiration and new freedom gets its ultimate symbol in a dish of crème caramel that he crafts with a younger sous-chef and decides to top with a bit of gold leaf, in pursuit of a vision that condenses the surfeit of luxury with the aesthetic invention that it inspires: he notes that the gold leaf “fluttered” in the draft of the kitchen and wants it to do so when it reaches the table, because: “It should be alive.” ♦


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