Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros’ is a golden ticket into one of the world’s finest restaurants

Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is an engrossing look into the passions, frustrations and beauty of haute cuisine
Photo courtesy of Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troigros IMDb page.

The label of “documentary” can be a deceiving one. In a landscape dominated by authorized hagiographies and overwrought true crime stories, finding a film that documents more than a filmmaker’s limited perspective can be a challenge. Enter Frederick Wiseman, the legendary 94-year-old documentarian whose stark and comprehensive films portray life as it is, free of narration, scoring or interviews.

His latest is “Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros,” a sprawling four-hour look into the inner workings of the Troisgros haute cuisine dynasty, a family whose flagship restaurant in central France has earned three Michelin stars. Despite– and in many cases, because of– its encyclopedic length and lack of stylization, the film is one of the most engaging, enlightening and surprisingly funny documentaries of the year.

In “Menus-Plaisirs,” Wiseman showcases every step of the culinary process in captivating detail. The film begins at a sun-drenched street market where César, the eldest son of La Maison Troisgros’ head chef Michel, searches for potential additions to new recipes. The film is peppered with scenes like this, showing the hand-picked arsenal of cooks and artisans foraging for garden greens, visiting cattle farms and touring cheese caves in search of only the finest ingredients. The only truly torturous part of the film is not being able to taste the luxurious cuisine so richly shot by cinematographer James Bishop.

Where a good film can open a new world to the audience, “Menus-Plaisirs” opens the door to several, each populated with people whose lives’ work is to grow, curate and craft the best foods in their respective fields. Michel Troisgros is the nucleus to these revolving worlds– and a charismatic one at that. One charming early moment shows Michel and his younger son, Léo, the head chef of neighboring restaurant La Colline du Colombier, brainstorming recipe ideas. The conversation looks less like a meeting of two celebrated artistic voices and more like a frustrating conversation you might have with your own dad, Léo struggling to introduce new ideas to the acclaimed culinary master.

Scenes like this highlight just how multi-faceted a star chef’s career must be. Here, the Troisgros act like film directors, balancing a myriad of logistical factors to create an enjoyable, artistically distinct product. And just like directors, they rely on the work of a massive crew.

In beautifully detailed cooking sequences, we see the crew in action, all of whom operate at a stunningly meticulous level. In real time we see the intricacies of slicing, sautéing, plating and more. Wiseman’s camera uses the kitchen’s luxurious open space to the fullest extent, giving us a look at the symphonic movement of the whole team as well as the minutiae of each cook’s work. One can imagine using the footage as a luxury cooking tutorial for those of us who have truffles and veal brains waiting in their pantry.

“Menus-Plaisirs” goes beyond the kitchen to introduce us to the elite waitstaff, an oligarchy of charming workers who must know the menu as thoroughly as the cooks do. In the moments before the customers are welcomed in, a history of employment is relayed. Some waitresses have a familiar rapport with each other, while the head waiter expresses some exasperation with picky returning clientele. When most of the courses have been served, we see Michel in another role: a public figure. Speaking in both French and English, he makes the rounds at each table to discuss his well-known past and crack jokes with high-society clientele.

Each of the moments shared with the Troisgros team and the ever-eclectic collection of paying customers has a movingly human effect. You are not getting mere glimpses of the process; you are shadowing the experts as they do it all. There is so much sheer material in the film that you can draw any number of conclusions from the action.

It is exceedingly rare to find a film this lengthy that feels this precise. “Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros,” acts as both a portrait of a family business and a chronicle of some of the world’s finest meals. Watching these artisans at the top of their field, it is difficult not to imagine making the pilgrimage to La Maison Troisgros. But if a trip to France isn’t in the cards, Wiseman’s film is the next best thing.

Thomas Machacz can be reached at [email protected].

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