Three Stars allows viewers to briefly be in the company of nine chefs who’ve received the coveted three-star rating awarded each year by the Michelin guide, an honor that assures chefs prestige and sometimes a year-long waiting list to eat in their restaurants. The chefs, who embody a variety of disciplines from all over the world, clearly share the commonality of being perfectionists who’re terrified of slipping. Three Stars is most interesting as a casual deconstruction of the mystique of talent. Talented people, particularly those regarded as geniuses of their chosen craft, often aren’t afforded the luxury of enjoying their acclaim, as to relax is to slip, to lose the edge that compels innovators to innovate.
The Michelin guide has long been (a somewhat controversial) arbiter of gastronomic greatness. To be awarded one star by the century-old arbiter of taste is to be signaled out as having a great restaurant, two stars notes the eatery as being worth traveling the world for, and three stars represents a culinary experience that’s close to divine perfection. The controversy that’s often surrounded the guide is similar to the controversy that plagues many aging well-regarded institutions: that it’s old-school, out of touch, and favors an exclusionary display of wealth over the result actually being produced. The guide’s director, Jean-Luc Naret, who’s so smug as to embody many American’s clichéd visions of snobbish Europeans, unconvincingly attempts to refute these claims by citing Michelin’s recent embracement of the blossoming Tokyo dining scene.
The potential irony of the stories contained in Three Stars—that major artists are pushing themselves to earn the esteem of a pretentious, fraudulent institution in love with surface aesthetics—is a great theme that has the possibility for a number of relevant and even heartbreaking metaphors regarding the struggle to produce art, and to live from it, amid a general public indifference. But director Lutz Hachmeister hasn’t allowed this, or any other, theme to crystallize, as you can’t even tell if this subtext is emerging intentionally.
The doc instead favors a jumpy greatest-hits structure, hopscotching from chef to chef, all of whom dutifully provide compelling soundbites. In Denmark, René Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, has attracted attention for favoring only local ingredients that have highlighted the possibilities of Scandinavian cuisine, which has, along with Juan Mari Arzak’s restaurant, Arzak, also been on the frontlines of the “molecular gastronomy” movement that favors a scientific approach to cooking. Japanese chef Hideki Ishikawa’s restaurant is stripped-down, small, and comparatively inexpensive. Ishikawa, who appears to be humble and relieved to have found his direction in life, is a refreshing counterpoint to a few of the other chefs we meet, who’re of the ever-networking, rock-star-celeb variety, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who runs nine restaurants including Jean-Georges in Trump Tower.
As a sampler course of what it means to court the Michelin honor, Three Stars is enjoyable, but it’s simply a collision of details that never entirely converge into a meaningful whole. Hachmeister was understandably taken with his subjects, and probably believed that allowing them to simply be themselves would be enough to achieve a cinematic unity. But a director needs to exert control, and to have a modus operandi that allows the subjects to emerge with clarity. As it is, there are simply too many cooks in this kitchen.