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Review | ‘Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros’: A documentary that savors its meal

Admin By Admin Nov29,2023

(3 stars)

The camera remains perfectly still as sunlight filters in from a dining room window. The natural light lends a soft, gauzy, almost Vermeer-like intimacy to three Frenchmen as they sit around a table and discuss what kind of freshwater fish to use for quenelles. None of the men are identified, nor is the restaurant where they’re creating a dish in real time. The long scene’s static lens and its lack of meaningful reference points leave viewers with one unmistakable impression: They are eavesdroppers on a private conversation.

Over the course of four mostly rapt, often wordless hours in “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros,” filmmaker Frederick Wiseman will let you get to know the three chefs at the table — members of the Troisgros family, as it turns out — but only on his terms, the very ones that have made him a 93-year-old legend. As with the other 40-plus films to his credit, whether “Meat” in 1976 or “City Hall” in 2020, Wiseman doesn’t trade in the traditional techniques of the documentarian’s art. He provides no narration in “Menus-Plaisirs” (which translates roughly as “small pleasures”), no identifications for those on-screen, no on-camera interviews, not even a tidy summation of the Troisgros family story, which stretches back generations and figures into one of the most seismic shifts in French gastronomy.

Wiseman’s approach is to drop you blindly into the middle of the Troisgros milieu and allow details to emerge scene by scene, frame by frame, as if you’re watching a photograph come into clear, four-color focus over several hours. By the time the film flickers to a close, you will have an almost visceral understanding of the knowledge, skill, discipline, grind, art, conflict and generosity that animate Le Bois Sans Feuilles, the Michelin three-star destination set among the hedges and vast green fields of Ouches in central France.

You might not get a full accounting of Troisgros family history — that its first restaurant opened in 1930 in Roanne; that it earned its first Michelin star in 1954 and its third in 1968; that brothers Pierre and Jean, sons of the founding couple, would declutter and lighten French cooking into a style commonly known as nouvelle cuisine. But you glean insights, some almost subliminal, into the ways that those three chefs at the table, Michel Troisgros and his sons, César and Léo, have expanded on family traditions, along with their spouses and/or partners, whose skills are vital complements to the management of the Troisgros family of restaurants.

Wiseman artfully moves from kitchen to dining room to farm to winery to cheese cave to beehive, the journeys a constant reminder that, no matter how artificial a Michelin three-star restaurant may be, the place still has its roots deep in the natural world. The scenes inside the spacious, shelf-less kitchen at Le Bois Sans Feuilles (which translates as “the forest without leaves,” a reference to the woodland theme of the dining room) are among the most hypnotic: a prep cook who fillets a whole salmon, the bones crunching under the weight of his knife. A pastry cook who tempers chocolate on a marble counter. A brigade of cooks who silently apply the many components and garnishes that complete a seemingly simple bowl of snails.

As he has in his earlier documentaries, Wiseman gives the workers their due, attuned to the fact that a long line of prep cooks, sous chefs, farmers and craftspeople are responsible for these meticulously prepared plates, even if the Troisgros family earns the lion’s share of the recognition. In a sense, “Menus-Plaisirs” is a companion piece to “Meat,” Wiseman’s unflinching look at beef production in America in the 1970s, filmed entirely in black-and-white as if to minimize the bloody brutality inherit in the system. Both films take great pains to point out the backbreaking work that goes into producing your meal.

Yet more than that, “Menus-Plaisirs” feels like something of a hopeful counterpoint to “Meat,” in which an unidentified beef industry executive once opined, “I don’t think any more big wars are really going to be fought on ideology.”

“We’re getting to where we’re using enough of our potential resources, whether they be energy or food, where I think we’re going to fear big wars [that] result from shortages of essentials to people,” the executive added.

Our resources have only become more precious since the 1970s, but with his latest documentary, Wiseman shows us the inner workings of a very particular, very rarefied food chain, one in which human consumption and profit are not the sole motivations. The men and women here are dedicated to creating an exquisite meal at a Troisgros restaurant, yes. But they’re also dedicated to maintaining healthy soils, sequestering carbon and building a sustainable system.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains scenes of cooks cutting into fish and other animal flesh. In French with subtitles. 240 minutes.

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