Earlier this year, lots of people turned out at The Belcourt to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a fine documentary about 85-year-old master sushi chef Jiro Ono preparing his son Yoshikazu to run his tiny Tokyo sushi bar. The cuisine may be entirely different, but in many other ways Paul Lacoste's documentary Step Up to the Plate is remarkably similar — down to the hunger pangs it triggers in a viewer for something we can't get locally.
Here Lacoste follows revered French chef Michel Bras as he prepares to hand over the three-star restaurant bearing the family name to his son Sébastien. As in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the pressure is on the son to uphold not only the restaurant's standards but the father's vision. But Sébastien has his own subtle innovations and flourishes which don't always jibe with his father's, even when the detail is as seemingly inconsequential as the direction of a stroke of purée on a plate.
The fascination here, as in Jiro, lies in the film's ability to convey to us why it matters — why it matters, for example, to use white borage flower in a dressing instead of blue. The minute, painstaking drips, dabs and swatches of flavors on a dish can seem fussy beyond endurance (though one amusing shot shows a pair of cooks forming a looped assembly line to arrange the minuscule ingredients). But Michel and Sébastien, who share a quiet, intense practicality, approach their work without pretension, breaking down for us the balance of textures and flavors that elevates a dish to sublimity. In one of the best scenes, Sébastien tries to create a Japanese equivalent to one of his father's classic desserts, substituting, say, puffed rice for bread crust. Asked whether the result is French or Japanese cuisine, he chuckles and says, "I have no idea."
Shot with great care and attention to texture, whether we're looking at plated food or water trickling under the ice of a wintry rustic stream, Step Up to the Plate is an uncommonly artful food doc, warmed by the glow of the Bras family's bonds — which Sébastien encapsulates, in a simple and joyous finale, in favorite ingredients. It'll make you want to cook with your kids. It'll also change the way you look at milk skin.
Step Up to the Plate screens Monday and Tuesday at The Belcourt; click here for show times and more information.