The perception of food and how we interact with it in our daily lives is at an interesting crossroads in the media. For the most part, the message of the moment is about keeping things organic and simple, using the best ingredients on hand, sourced locally if at all possible. On the other end of the spectrum, reality TV pushes a mixed message of preparing high end, highly crafted food, but as fast as possible. From the top shelf “Top Chef” to the lowly “Hell’s Kitchen,” they both have the same goal of spotlighting refined eating and, eventually, positioning participants on a path to earn a coveted Michelin star, should their career take them on a path to work on that level. And Lutz Hachmeister‘s documentary, “Three Stars,” explores what it takes to earn those coveted honors, and even more, what’s required to keep it.
Instead of focusing one or two particular restaurants or chefs, Hachmeister instead chooses ten Michelin-starred chefs from nine restaurants to try and find the similarities and differences in both style and approach, and what has made each person in the kitchen and in their business one that has stood out from the pack. And while the cuisines and philosophies may differ, one thing is clear — they all work extraordinarly hard. Being a chef often means being the first person awake and the last one in bed, and for many like Hideki Ishikawa, the day begins early at the market and ends late at night after the last customer has left. And even for guys like Jean-Georges Vongerichten of New York’s famed Jean George, even if he’s not in the kitchen, he’s busy overseeing an empire of restaurants and brands all with goal of maintaining a high level of quality, which is a different art in and of itself.
But what exactly do Michelin judges look for? While Hachmeister does manage to get some interesting insight from the publisher themselves, the ranking system still remains mostly a mystery. All that folks do know is that one star means restaurant that has “very good cuisine,” two stars indicates it’s “excellent” and worth seeking out, while three stars bestows upon it the label of “extraordinary,” and a place worth making a trip for. Even earning one star can mean a boon for business and a life-changing affirmation thanks to years of dedicated perserverance to one’s craft. But losing one can be equally devastating, and in 2003, famed French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after learning his three-starred restaurant might be dropping down to two stars. So with an unknown guideline, with stars being handed out to restaurants covering a wide range of cultures and styles, it’s not a shock that every chef moves a bit differently.
For Rene Redzepi, who runs Noma in Copenhagen, he serves nothing that isn’t strictly local — that means no imported meats, spices or anything else. What this has forced the chef to do is to become something of a quasi-expert on the vegetation of the country with his dishes standing out simply for the fact that they utilize ingredients that many don’t make a regular part of their diet or didn’t even know were edible. And being accomplished at a high level, his plates are impressive. And equally noteworthy are Juan Mari and Elena Arzak of Arzak in San Sebastian, who move in the opposite direction, pushing very high-end, avant garde cooking. And then there’s the aforementioned Ishikawa whose extraordinarily modest and unassuming restaurant sticks closely to traditional Japanese fare. It’s all about the execution and maintaining a consistent high standard that sets these folks apart, but not everyone cares for playing this game.
Chef Olivier Roellinger of Les Maisons De Bricourt is no stranger to Michelin glory, but he decided in 2008 to turn in his stars and effectively bow out of the grind. He still plans to cook and develop his business, but he somewhat laments some of the modern methods that have left plain old school technique behind. “Nobody talks about the cooking time of beef anymore,” he says, and it is a particularly trenchant insight, especially at a time when practices like molecular gastronomy are gaining momentum in the field. But, Roellinger is one of the few, and like the Oscars, while no one may care for the method and while controversies still swirl from time to time, receiving the Michelin star is still a tremendous and prestigious achievement.
Hachmesiters’s “Three Stars” is a treat, largely because it eschews the standard arc of documentaries. Even though it runs a bit over 90 minutes long, the film is patient and lingers with its subjects and narrative arc, allowing viewers to truly become immersed and appreciative of each of the chefs and their particular goals and aspirations. While the world of haute cuisine (like fashion or film or music) sometimes tends to get drowned out by bigger, emptier names or those with more flash than talent, “Three Stars” is a gentle reminder of the people who are truly interested, fascinated and forever challenged by food, and strive to innovate and reorient our relationship with it. [B]