Popular gastronomy seems to come in two extreme flavors these days. At one end of the chicly underdressed table is the kind of easy-breezy, culturally scattered, make-it-your-own casual dining epitomised by Jamie Oliver and Alison Roman. At the other is food as fussy molecular science: hyper-sculpted, tweezer-assembled and outlandish in flavor and presentation, it has made Michelin-starred gods of the likes of Heston Blumenthal, pushing the idea of fine dining into near-fantastically rarefied realms. Mugaritz, the much-lauded Spanish restaurant that is the focus of “Stage: The Culinary Internship,” falls haughtily into the latter category: Abby Ainsworth’s handsome, diverting documentary presents it as a self-styled ivory tower, to which a gaggle of wide-eyed junior chefs annually struggle to gain access, yet there’s as much bemusement as awe in its gaze.
“The pictures are beautiful, but is it food?” muses young Korean chef Kim as he pages through the Mugaritz cookbook. Many viewers will feel he has spoken for them as Ben Ainsworth’s camera lingers silkily over the most elaborate creations of a world-beating kitchen nestled in the Basque countryside: “unleavened bread hem salting roe”; a “frozen oyster kiss” presented like a Swarovski snowball; or “noble rot,” a fusion of apple and penicillin that the layman might mistake for moldy fruit-bowl waste. Mugaritz, a longtime employee informs us, regards pleasure and disgust as equally valuable reactions; the artistry behind the food is extraordinary, though at 300 euro a head, it’s an expensively acquired taste.
It’s this knowledge that may give viewers some pause as “Stage: The Culinary Internship” turns its focus to the interns, or “stagiaires,” in question: 30 young chefs from across the globe, selected from over 1500 applicants a year, selected to work unpaid for nine months in the Mugaritz kitchen, under the discerning eye of founder Andoni Luis Aduriz. This “stage” is presented as a vastly prestigious one in culinary circles, yet the ethics of employing free labor at this supremely high-end restaurant are never queried. The implication is that the opportunity will eventually pay for itself in terms of career development, though as Ainsworth’s film follows the contrasting paths of several young “stagiaires” through the program, it seems to deter as many candidates from Aduriz’s exacting gastronomic philosophy as it truly converts.
The plucky, quietly charismatic Kim hopes to be a “last warrior standing” as other “stagiaires” prove unable to take the heat in this pretty clinical kitchen: Audiences accustomed to the shrill theatrics of reality shows like Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” may be surprised by the depiction of a work environment in which pressure is applied in quieter, more tacit but still unnerving ways. “Kitchens can crush people — here, the opposite has to happen,” says Aduriz, who appears somewhat detached from the training process after an introductory pep talk. But the oft-repeated Mugaritz mantra — “Tomorrow, again, and better” — weighs heavily on some chefs’ shoulders as the months go by. As some drop out, we’re left to piece together their motivations from more allusive statements: Shy young Polish chef Pawel cites the death of a family pet as his trigger for leaving, yet there are clearly unspoken anxieties at play. Meanwhile, standout intern Sara is a stern introvert who seems spurred by gender imbalance in the restaurant industry: a subject the film raises without frankly tackling.
At just 78 minutes, this bustling, absorbing doc hasn’t quite enough time to entirely draw us into the lives and perspectives of its likable human subjects: We’re given sketched-in backgrounds and familial food histories, but their personalities remain somewhat elusive. A handful of loose, good-humoured scenes depicting their off-duty socializing give the film some oxygen. What’s most telling is that the food they share in their downtime, be it a home-roasted chicken dinner or chips and guacamole wolfed down in a bar, is miles removed from the architectural creations they sweat over in their working hours. One “stagiaire” admits to being inspired by Jamie Oliver as if it were the very guiltiest of secrets.
While some thrive within Mugaritz’s chilly strictures, others find the internship at least affirms their opposite culinary identity: One can easily identify with the chef who leaves vowing to pursue a career in “casual French cuisine.” For all its fascinating process-related detail and mirror-glazed presentation — assets that would make the film at home alongside such thoughtful food-themed programming as Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” — “Stage: The Culinary Internship” doesn’t entirely convey the spell the restaurant casts over certain employees and diners alike. But you know it’s there: perhaps it takes a frozen oyster kiss to find out.