Step Up to the Plate features three-star Michelin restaurant owner Michel Bras, a French chef who fits the mold of the prototypically exacting and eccentric genius prone to eliciting co-worker and audience reactions that are simultaneously astonished and baffled. Bras is the kind of man who appears to reside primarily in his own head: a workaholic and a visionary who’s had to make the sacrifices that are required of most people who make an impact of some sort on the world. Namely, Bras, as he freely admits, has spent less time with his family than he’d like, though that admission strikes us as somewhat obligatory—a committed man’s impression of what an easygoing working-class Joe is supposed to say.
The year may be shaping up to be the year of the Metaphoric Culinary Documentary, as Step Up to the Plate is arriving in theaters just a few months after the release of the similarly themed Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and another culinary doc, Three Stars, follows next week). In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a son grappled with the task of living up to the legacy of his titular father, a global sushi master. In Step Up to the Plate, Michel struggles to cede control of his restaurant to his son Sébastien, a 40ish family man with opinions and techniques of his own whose nevertheless worked under his father since childhood. At the beginning of the film, Michel has partially stepped away from running his restaurant, appearing only when Sébastien summons him, but we need to only briefly read the faces of these men to see that they are both still in the throes of considerable emotional turmoil.
Step Up to the Plate has been made with a hypnotic elegance worthy of its subjects. For the most part, writer-director Paul Lacoste (who made a 50-minute TV doc on Michel 10 years earlier) refreshingly eschews typical documentary devices such as third-person narration and talking-head testimony. The film is distinctively silent: We mostly watch as Michel and Sébastien refine dishes or teach classes in intimate collaborations that involve communications that are conveyed primarily through gesture. Michel says that he wished he spent more time with his family earlier in his life, but clearly he’s partially—and, perhaps, purposefully—missing the point. In the midst of creating their dishes, Michel and Sébastien, though combative and competitive, appear to be as close as any father and son could be.
Lacoste’s almost purely observational approach allows him to come about as close to documenting the process of creation as anyone ever has; Step Up to the Plate is occasionally reminiscent of The Mystery of Picasso in its use of artful fades to convey and elaborate on the private thoughts behind creation. Throughout the film, Sébastien concerns himself with the invention of a desert he calls Pathway, which is a sculpture of cheese, milk skin, bread, and chocolate, among other ingredients, that’s meant to chart a tasting evolution from savory to sweet. It’s also an autobiographical representation of Sébastien’s desire to break free of his father.
The dish, at least aesthetically, is a legitimate work of art—an edible sculpture that, fittingly, resembles a great bridge (a Japanese variation that Sébastien creates is even more beautiful). But Michel, in the film’s key moment, regards it tentatively, looking Pathway over for long moments before finally initiating a long and thorough consumption. Michel, as to be expected of a man of his level of accomplishment, is pitiless and seemingly petty at first, but Lacoste’s long, empathetic takes bring about a revelation. We understand that Michel, in his refusal to cut his son even the simplest slack, is paying him the ultimate compliment: regarding Sébastien as an equal and a master. Michel is also, in the only fashion he knows, telling his son that he loves him.