Television is awash in food these days, most of it utterly forgettable, at best (I'm still having flashbacks from having accidentally watched five minutes of "The Chew"). Want to see what food on film could really be like? Check out this series of French documentaries. There are nine of them so far, each focusing on a different three-star chef, and they are absolutely splendid — maybe the best food programs that have ever been made.
In fact, to call them "food television" is to miss their point. On these videos there is no shouting, no contrived competition, actually, not even any outsized personalities, despite the fact that the stars are some of the best, most creative chefs on the planet. At their cores, these videos by director Paul Lacoste are 1-hour mediations on creativity and imagination, with food being the common medium. If that sounds lofty and intellectual, well, so be it. But that doesn't mean that the shows aren't also a lot of fun, albeit in a quiet, contemplative way.
Each documentary is different in theme and in tone, varying with the chef. Michel Bras walks the stark landscape around his restaurant in Laguiole commenting on the interplay of light and shadow and suddenly his highly abstract plating comes into focus. Alain Passard contemplates the simple beauty of a roasted onion. Michel Troisgros emerges as an almost tragic figure as he repeatedly tries to reinvent dishes made famous by his pioneering father and uncle. Lacoste visits Italian Nadia Santini (the only non-French chef in the series) starting with an attitude that could be most charitably described as paternalistic (maybe even condescending?), but comes away utterly seduced by the way she coaxes complex flavors from simple, perfect ingredients.
FOR THE RECORD:
Chef documentaries: In the Dec. 8 Food section, a review of the DVD series "Inventing Cuisine" said the director's name is Paul Cotat. It is Paul Lacoste. —
This is what real cooking is about when done on the highest level. Yes, there are recipes, and, yes, there are techniques explained. But what the shows are really about — and what great cooking is really about — is the human element. Anyone can sauté eggplant, given the right set of instructions and a little practice. But the ability to turn that eggplant into art is the province of a very few.
"Inventing Cuisine," La Huit Productions (distributed in the U.S by Allegro Media Group). Available on Amazon.com or direct from the Allegro website, http://www.allegro-music.com. $15 to $20 per video.
— Russ Parsons