In his latest documentary, the American master Frederick Wiseman observes the routines of the Troisgros family and their three fine dining restaurants in France.
A day in the life of a restaurateur and Frederick Wiseman’s latest film begin in the same way: at the food market. Fingers carefully peruse fresh produce as if valuable rarities, men debate the merits of Moroccan mint and wild strawberries with the eagerness and attentiveness of connoisseurs, and greet the farmers with the warm familiarity of old neighbours. From the busy quarters of the market and into the restaurant kitchen they go, turning isolated portions of food into an entire menu in a process akin to alchemy.
Michel Troisgros became known for crafting menus out of locally sourced ingredients, finding inspiration in the seasonal rhythms of the French region of Burgundy where his family has owned a restaurant for almost a century. After a brief foray into fiction filmmaking with 2022’s A Couple, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman returns to non-fiction with the 4-hour-long Menus-Plaisirs Les Troigros, chronicling the routine of one of the many sites of the ever-sprawling Troisgros domain.
The site in question is the La Colline du Colombier, a jewel of modern architecture envisioned to mirror the pastoral patterns of the local landscape (deep in the French countryside, a 90-minute drive from Lyon) and built with natural materials that evoke the culinary practices of the chef in its realm. If the restaurant’s architecture stands in harmony with the geography of its bucolic settings, the kitchen is a stark contrast to the unpredictability of nature’s tides, helmed with millimetric precision by Chef Michel. Wiseman’s unobtrusive approach lends itself to this dichotomy, patiently accompanying the lulling rhythms of farms and fields while allowing for the precision of the kitchen to be appreciated in the entirety of its many processes.
Knives cut through root and bone alike as fingers escape the blade by a millisecond. Grains are rearranged on plates with the help of surgical tweezers, an almost too-on-the-nose reminder of the need for accuracy that permeates both culinary and medical practices. The kitchen is a world of its own, one that exists only when in tandem with the salon. There, people from all corners of the world gather in a limbo where all that matters is the menu, joined solely by an appreciation of the fine dining experience. The customers are treated by the waiting staff with the same loving care as the food is treated by the chefs, the two teams forming the fragile ecosystem of hospitality that ensures the success of the restaurant.
The Troisgros clan has held onto their coveted three Michelin stars for over five decades, a feat capable of impressing even those unable to distinguish between a coulis and a souflée. By the time Wiseman enters Michel’s kitchen, the chef is readying himself to pass the baton to his children, and do his part to ensure the longevity of the family’s culinary empire. This ritual, shared by four generations of Troisgros, evokes weighty reflections on questions of legacy and succession. This encompassing of such a pivotal moment in the life of a prolific artist makes it hard not to think of Wiseman’s very own five-decade career, Menus-Plaisirs Les Toisgros standing as a poignant reminder that the 93-year-old has no baton to pass.
Published 11 Sep 2023
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