Highlighting nine chefs who have earned the Michelin Guide’s coveted “Three Stars,” Lutz Hachmeister’s docu examines the impact of gastronomy’s ratings system, the various culinary philosophies espoused by each chosen chef and the ambience of the different restaurants over which they preside. Hachmeister jumps from chef to chef, country to country, sampling little soundbites or chronicling the meticulous building of a blini on an asparagus stalk, with no clear structure to give the docu momentum. Strictly foodie fare, “Stars” should be welcomed on cuisine-obsessed cable after its Sept. 21 limited release.The chefs, though not especially fascinating in and of themselves, present startling contrasts with each other. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, owner of several restaurants in New York, glad-hands famous guests and presides over a small empire. Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s Rene Redzepi clambers around the Danish countryside, hacking away at some obscure plant in his obsessive drive to use only foodstuffs native to the region; staples like tomatoes and olive oil are banned from his kitchen. San Sebastian’s Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena incorporate scientific principles into their laboratory cuisine of more than 1,500 ingredients, many of them freeze-dried, while Italy’s Nadia Santini, one of only six female three-star chefs, glories in the three generations of her family bustling around her unregimented kitchen. Visually, the disparities between the restaurants prove equally extreme: Chef Hideki Ishikawa’s Tokyo eatery looks as unpretentious and self-effacing as its modest owner. Paris’ Le Meurice, on the other hand, which features Yannick Alleno’s gourmet stylings, looks like something out of an opulent Louis XVI wet dream; a brioche is quartered with more pomp and circumstance than is generally expended on the carving of a turkey. Scenes of strategy meetings with staff offer insights into how much research goes into serving specific guests, while a compendium of latenight closings, as personnel leave their darkening workplaces, adds an impressionistic note. Hachmeister frequently cuts to and reprises an interview with the current director of the Guide Michelin, the tanned and rather smug Jean-Luc Naret, who holds forth on the integrity of Michelin’s standards and methods, and boasts of its expansion into Asia and America. Deborah Friedman’s intrusively matter-of-fact narration offers only the most tentative suggestions that some might consider the guide old-fashioned and arbitrary. Tech credits are workaday. Hajo Schomerus and Dirk Wojcik’s straight-on camerawork delivers the restaurants’ atmospherics, but rarely favors minimalist cookery, as if dots of sauce on a rock and nitrogen-frozen sour-cream balls somehow lack poetry.
A First Run Features (in U.S.) release of an HMR production in association with Arte, WDR, NDR. Produced by Lutz Hachmeister, Hermance Gremion, Heike Lettau, Cecile Thomas, Uwe Herpich. Executive producers, Olaf Grunert, Christiane Hinz, Barbara Denz. Directed by Lutz Hachmeister.
Camera (color, HD), Hajo Schomerus, Dirk Wojcik; editors, Mechthild Barth, Christian Wagener; sound, Stavros Charitidis, Laura Schnurre, Frank Maraite. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Sept. 21, 2012. Running time: 94 MIN.
Yannick Alleno, Elena Arzak, Juan Mari Arzak, Sven Elverfeld, Sergio Herman, Hideki Ishikawa, Rene Redzepi, Nadia Santini, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Jean-Luc Naret. Narrator: Deborah Friedman. (English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German dialogue)