The documentary Entre les Bras (lamely called Step Up to the Plate in English) opens with France’s most influential, revered chef—Michel Bras—pulling push-pinned photos off a bulletin board. He is making way for his son Sébastien’s take over of his restaurant Bras in southern France. Slight, compact, and bespectacled, he looks a little Jacques Cousteau, a little Milhouse Van Houten of The Simpsons. And totally serious. This is a guy who tells the front-of-the-house staff to “Watch it!” when his son solicits comments on the menu. “I can get nasty about that.”
Director Paul Lecoste has created the French Jiro Dreams of Sushi—it’s just as lyrical, showing, not telling. He captures fantastic intimate moments within this talented family (four generations of them!), revealing relationships and histories that would take years to discover in person.
At first it seems like Michel is the Dad from hell, and he’s never going to let Sébastien take over. Bras père calmly heckles son at the pre-dawn market when they pick up their produce (“Now I know why Wednesdays are a mess. I do everything on Saturdays, you see.”) He picks a small fight when raising the question as to how to make transparent jelly (use seeds to avoid oil emulsion cloudiness). When the two are driving away from the market, Sébastien makes a pleasantry—”Look at the sunrise”—and Michel has to correct him and says, “Not for another hour.” They fall silent.
But it becomes clear that Michel is preparing Séba, as he is affectionately known, he’s training him. And Séba accepts it all with grace. Just a couple of times does he chafe, only to acquiesce in the end. Because he sees, too. Doubt if you’ve ever seen so much love doled out in such a restrained, uptight manner.
In the restaurant kitchen, Michel hovers behind Sébastien, poking his nose over his son’s shoulder and peering into his face, looking like Kilroy or a conjoined twin. He pushes Sébastien to think things through. And it’s clear that he is learning his lessons well. The thread running through the documentary is Séba’s development of a dessert—it’s a culinary portrait of his life. And when, at the end of the film, Lecoste films Sébastien’s grandmother and mother, respectively, making snacks for him, everything falls into place. (It also makes you really, really want to eat some Laguiole cheese.)
If you’re into food, you won’t want to miss the chance of seeing it on the big screen. If you’re just into good filmmaking, you won’t want to miss it either (the brooding shots of the desolate landscape are stellar, and reflect all the culinary contemplation the two Bras men do.) It plays at the Honolulu Museum of Art Doris Duke Theatre Feb. 5, 6, and 7 at 1 and 7:30pm. You can buy tickets online.
For those into The Eating Game you get the chance to see where half the ideas chefs are playing with today came from. The film includes a segment showing Michel Bras placing each ingredient for his famous le gargouillou salad on a plate—on May 28, 2009. Olive, mashed yellow peppers, red peppers, black olive, sesame powder, sorrel, barley, leaf of celeriac, cauliflower marrow, artichoke, broccoli marrow, red amarinth, Chinese cabbage, rhubarb, dill, white rose “from our balcony”—the litany goes on. And it is so beautiful. It’s like the most amazing William Morris floral wallpaper every created. And you can eat it. (This dish is so influential, the New York Times wrote an article about it and the many salads it begat.)
The scenes of the Bras at their restaurant in the Windsor Hotel Toya, in Japan, are dreamy. That’s where Sébastien refashions his work-in-progress dessert for a Japanese audience—with nothing lost in translation. (Plus it will tickle you pink to hear him say “mochi” with a coy smile.)
And you get to see Michel and Séba carousing with Pierre Gagnaire, Olivier Roellinger, and Michel Troisgros at the Gaillac fête des vendanges (wine harvest festival). Holy foie gras! The three talk about the Bras torch passing, and Troisgros, himself the son of a famous chef, knowingly says, “Sébastien will be at his best when Michel really retires.”