On Film, the Romance of French Cooking Is Forever

These are heady days for French cuisine onscreen — not just the food but the kitchen itself. Two recent films, Trân Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things (in theaters now) and Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgrois (which will begin streaming via PBS on March 1), are so firmly set around the stove that they basically come with recipes.

Adapted from (or more accurately, inspired by) Marcel Rouff’s 1920 novel The Passionate Epicure, The Taste of Things takes place in the Loire Valley, in the sort of château that World of Interiors exists for. Benoît Magimel is Dodin Bouffant, a burly master chef; Magimel’s real-life ex-partner, Juliette Binoche, is Eugénie, his lover, assistant, not-quite-wife, and (quite possibly) the even better chef, though she wouldn’t identify as such. It is 1889, so their relationship is asymmetrical — he commands, she obeys; he directs, she executes — until Eugénie takes ill, and for the first time, instead of her cooking for him and his wealthy friends, Dodin cooks for her.

Of course, the omelet rolls just so. The chicken is shingled with thick slices of truffle, and the gardens where Eugénie collects fruits and vegetables are rainforest lush. Hùng’s film is a pure fantasy, which is not to say it doesn’t have historical basis. (Rouff’s Dodin is loosely based on Brillat-Savarin.) But this is French romance, where picture-perfect landscapes give way to amorous schmaltz — le lard amoureux — and lines like “Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert.” Dodin proposes, Eugénie coyly refuses, the dance continues. The kitchen, the bedroom: Life exists between the two.

Vérité? Not quite. The pleasures of the flesh are so adoringly shot that it might as well be a cartoon. Every copper pan and pot patinated just so, the perfect sear crackling on the loin of veal, Eugénie’s magisterial vol-au-vent wearing its little pastry topper like a jaunty fez. The Taste of Things joins films like Babette’s Feast in the culinary canon, but it has as much to do with food as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (another film with a significant omelet) does with sewing: Both films are more interested in the relationship between creator and muse, creator and helpmeet. Nominally, The Taste of Things’ plot is about a cook-off: The rustic simplicity of Dodin’s perfect pot-au-feu versus the show-offy, endless, eight-hour banquet presented by a visiting pasha and his chef. (There’s a lengthy recitation of the menu by the Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, who consulted on the film’s food, in a cameo as the Prince of Eurasia’s culinary officier de bouche; I lost track somewhere around a mid-course of turtle doves, which is exactly the point.) But, really, this is a love story with calories, between man and woman, man and craft, woman and craft. The love passes not only laterally but vertically, as Eugénie and Dodin pass on their knowledge to a little prodigy, Pauline, who is moved to tears by her first taste of Baked Alaska.

The Taste of Things shows plenty of effort, but for the real pain and sweat, you’d have to go behind the scenes. All the food is real, and Gagnaire dispatched his longtime deputy, Michel Nave, to prepare it on-site. “Just to film the pot au feu, Michel Nave had to manipulate 40 kilos of meat: raw meat to prepare and cook, meat already cooked and ready to be sliced, ready to be plated … It was a colossal, endless task,” Hùng explained in a note sent out with the film’s press materials. “For the ortolan scene, in which he used miniature quails (ortolans being a protected species), he had to work behind our set in a dusty, dilapidated hole-in-the-wall, standing on a pile of rubble, one foot lower than the set, and on a butane stove.” (He loved it, Hùng reports.) That kind of trenchwork is more similar to Frederick Wiseman’s documentary than anything Hùng put onscreen.

Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgrois is an expansive exploration — one that lasts four hours — of the Michelin-starred kitchens of the Troisgrois empire in and around Lyon, about two hours from Anjou, where The Taste of Things was filmed. The chef-ly Troisgrois dynasty is now in its third generation. Grandpère Pierre (1928–2020) was a founder of nouvelle cuisine. His son, Michel, now runs Le Bois Sans Feuilles (The Woods Without Leaves), a three-starred restaurant and hotel in Ouches, as well as the more casual Le Central in Roanne and Le Colombier in Iguerande, slowly ceding control to his sons, César (reserved, intense, who runs his kitchen with only “a look or a gesture,” according to Michel), who mans Le Bois, and Léo (bushier, sparkier), who handles La Colline du Colombier.

If Taste of Things is a film about pleasure, Menus-Plaisirs is a film about work. There is very little footage of food being consumed — not by Le Bois’ €590-a-meal (with wine) guests, nor by the chefs themselves. The most extended scene of eating is of Michel trying a new creation of César’s and offering, with the fewest words possible — this is also the most extended scene of Oedipal conflict, at a bare simmer rather than a boil — the note that there’s a hint too much sriracha in the kidneys for his taste. The pace of the film is dictated by the enormous labor of the undertaking, the fleets of young cooks who come from all over the world to work in the Troisgrois’ spotless, silent kitchen, where every detail, no matter how infinitesimal, is a matter of discussion and consideration. (The most dramatic episode concerns a young cook who improperly bleeds a bowl of brains.)

As a documentarian, Wiseman is obsessed with process, procedure, and organization; Menus-Plaisirs is his 44th film (he made it at age 93) and not so different as it might first appear from such earlier films as Hospital (1970), City Hall (2020), or The Store (1983), about the Dallas branch of Neiman Marcus. They, too, are about the symphony of logistics that underpins every complex human endeavor, whether that’s enforcing local ordinances or creating, as the Troisgrois do, a “flowering John Dory.”

Though both films were considered Oscar contenders — Taste of Things was France’s official submission — neither was ultimately nominated, a good reminder that awards are a poor metric of quality, at least in isolation. Taken together, the movies attest to the durable beauty of the hautest forms of French cooking, effort not only for taste but for effort’s own noble sake. In this, they’re a world away from the cynical dystopia of last year’s major food movie, The Menu. Gauzy, sure, but pourquoi pas?

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