'Step Up to the Plate'

A quietly absorbing portrait of the infinitely finicky care that goes into Michelin three-starred French cuisine, "Step Up to the Plate" has the requisite mix of vicarious gastronomical thrills and relatable human interest to make foodie auds swoon.

A quietly absorbing portrait of the infinitely finicky care that goes into Michelin three-starred French cuisine, “Step Up to the Plate” has the requisite mix of vicarious gastronomical thrills and relatable human interest to make foodie auds swoon. Coming close on the heels of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” with which it shares the narrative hook of torch-passing between celebrated father and longtime second-in-command son, Paul Lacoste’s charming docu should have no trouble whetting the appetites of tube and niche-theatrical buyers in various territories. Cinema Guild will roll the pic out theatrically this summer, followed by VOD/DVD release.

Lacoste first profiled Michel Bras years ago for a broadcast series about great Gallic chefs. Now Michel is retiring — slowly, reluctantly — while the culinary world presumably holds its breath to see what happens once his son, Sebastien, takes over in earnest.

Yet most casual viewers will be surprised when, midway through, Sebastien flies to Japan to oversee and instruct at their luxury satellite restaurant there. So intimate is Lacoste’s focus, and so modest in demeanor are the protagonists, that this is the first moment we realize the Bras are indeed a very big deal in the microscopically analyzed world of high-end French cooking.

Before that, the film has shown them primarily behind the scenes, making the daily early-morning market pilgrimage, picking wild mushrooms, and drilling staff at their restaurant, spectacularly situated in the mountainous Aubrac region. The opening sequence shows Michel assembling a salad, an enterprise as complex and delicate as a pointillist painting; Sebastien’s creation of a new dessert seems as risky and daunting as rocket science. The two men constantly critique and question one another, albeit without rancor; neither seems the type to display temper, and the family business is obviously more a multigenerational passion than an inherited burden. (Sebastien’s elementary-school son can hardly wait to start helping out in the kitchen, like his dad and grandpa before him.)

Still, it’s a very exacting art they practice, one whose unending pressures their devoted spouses have long adjusted to. While they’re often good-humored and (relatively) relaxed, it’s startling to see the men really cut loose at a raucous annual Grape Harvest Festival banquet. Sebastien is already well respected, but the true depth of his talents will only be known, one colleague muses, “once Michel really retires.” As his mother, Ginette, notes, it’s easier to get to the top of their profession than to stay there.

The mutual ease between helmer and subjects is obvious, adding to a spirit of tradition and goodwill far removed from the competitive TV chef shows that have grown popular since the Bras were last profiled onscreen. Packaging is both unobtrusive and disarming, from lensing of the rural French landscapes to an appealing chamber score.

Step Up to the Plate

France

Production

A Cinema Guild (in U.S.) release of an Everybody on Deck production in association with Le-Lokal, Jaime Mateus-Tique and Jour2Fete. (International sales: Jour2Fete, Paris.) Produced by Gaelle Bayssiere, Didier Creste. Directed, written by Paul Lacoste.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Yvan Quehec, Romain Carcanade; editor, Anthony Brinig; music, Karol Beffa; sound, Francois Lahbaye; re-recording mixer, Jean-Marc Billand; assistant director, Philippe Panagrazzi. Reviewed at Sundance Kabuki, San Francisco, April 3, 2012. (In San Francisco Film Festival; Berlin Film Festival -- Culinary Cinema.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Sebastien Bras, Michel Bras, Veronique Bras, Ginette Bras.

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