Many meals are memorable more for the first and last courses than for the main, and so it is with Step Up to the Plate, Paul Lacoste’s documentary about visionary chef Michel Bras passing his three-Michelin-star restaurant in Laguiole, France over to his son Sébastien.
It all starts out so promising as we observe, through time-lapse photography, the creation of Bras’s signature dish, the Gargouillou. It truly is a thing of wonder, a painting on a plate composed of vegetable emulsions, herbs, lettuces and edible flowers arranged with all the magic and color of a Delaunay. As I watched that first scene I was wishing I hadn’t picked this week to give up carbs. But I needn’t have worried—this movie did not whet my appetite after the amuse-bouche.
For a film about chefs who make food with the utmost precision, even using notebooks and diagrams to construct their dishes—Step Up to the Plate is kind of a mess. If it’s supposed to be a family story, it doesn’t tell you anything you couldn’t guess about how it must feel for father or son at such a moment in their lives—the father is ambivalent about retiring, the son is nervous about filling his shoes. If it’s supposed to be a movie about the art of cooking, there isn’t enough food on the screen to impress upon audiences (at least in the States, where only hardcore food enthusiasts know of Michel Bras) what it is that makes him so influential. If you are not among the enlightened, this movie offers little to make you care.
Michel Bras was founded by Michel’s mother, who wanted her son to be a chef; he in turn wanted his son to be a chef. Both generations were photographed at an early age in chef whites and toques. The kitchen was their destiny, but not much beyond that is revealed. The film’s measly portion of real artistry and food is embodied in Sébastien’s quest to create something of his own, a dessert as iconic as his father’s Gargouillou. Yet his moments of toil are regularly interspersed with scenes that don’t illuminate his emotions or struggle in any meaningful way. We see son and father out for a jog (Sébastien runs uphill, got it), Michel frolic with townsfolk at a local grape festival, and Sébastien doing karaoke in Kyoto where the family apparently has another restaurant. The film is also padded out with the prosaic poetry of sunrises and sunsets over the hilly landscape of the Aubrac region, and so many shots of cows and milk skins (the foundation of Sébastien’s dessert) that I felt like I needed a lactaid.
Early on we witness some good-natured bickering between father and son as Michel asserts his dominance in the handling of produce. And, no shocker here, when Sébastien first presents his dessert to Michel, the older man is at first uninterested (he plays with his iPhone as Sébastien labors over the most delicate strips of chocolate and pastry) and then unimpressed. Both stare into the camera enough throughout the film to make the entire enterprise seem disingenuous, and that's a shame because the work they do is nothing if not soulful.
There is plenty of drama inherent to performing at the level that the Bras certainly do, and the families that surround and support that kind of talent are fascinating. Kings of Pastry is a documentary that did a superb job of drawing viewers into the lives and dreams of such people. I’m afraid that this one fails to show what makes the Bras family and food extraordinary. Sébastien says that his dessert goes from savory to sweet and that it incorporates the trinity inside him—his grandmother, his father, and himself. I hope it tastes better than Step Up to the Plate, which is bland and travels nowhere.