‘Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros’ Review: This Four-Hour Doc About a Restaurant Is One of 2023’s Best Movies
I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I don’t do drugs. My vice is food. My wife and I save up so that once or twice a year we can go to an extravagant restaurant and spend a couple hours eating what we hope will be an extravagantly delicious meal. We dream of places like the one documented in exacting, fascinating detail in Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros, the latest film from Frederick Wiseman.
At 93, Frederick Wiseman is the grand master of American documentaries. His subjects are often institutions; municipal governments; high schools, public libraries. In a sense, Menus-Plaisirs considers two interconnected institutions: The operation of the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Bois Sans Feuilles in rural France, and the multigenerational dynasty of chefs that run it, including the patriarch, Michel Troisgros, and his sons César and Léo.
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Michel is the elder Troisgros in the kitchen these days, but he is the grandson of another acclaimed French chef, Jean-Baptiste Troisgros. (In between Michel and Jean-Baptiste, Jean-Baptiste’s sons Pierre and Jean — Michel’s father — inherited the family business.) Michel remains the final arbiter in the kitchen at Le Bois Sans Feuilles and the other Troisgros restaurants.
At least for now. We learn in the film that Michel was once on the cutting edge of modern French cuisine. These days, César and Léo are taking increasingly assertive roles in the kitchen; Wiseman observes as try to inject their own bold culinary ideas into the family’s menus. Michel absorbs some of their suggestions and rejects others. (Towards the end of the movie, he says to one “client,” as he calls all the customers at the restaurant, that he has begun to wonder if it is time for him to hand control to his sons.)
A meal at a place like Le Bois Sans Feuilles is supposed to take us away from reality for a little while; to dazzle us with uncommon tastes and smells and sights. We’re not meant to contemplate the time and energy that went into a perfect French cut lamb chop or an aesthetically beautiful stalk of asparagus. Of course, making food that looks effortless requires enormous effort. Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros is a movie about that effort; about the hours and days and months and years of sweat, thought, choices, and practice required to produce something worthwhile — great food, certainly, but really any work of art.
The work that goes on in kitchens, even extremely high-end ones, is not a secret these days, not to anyone who watches Top Chef or Chef’s Table or one of the countless other cooking shows on cable television and streaming. But those shows — and I watch a lot of them — boil down the process of preparing food to its most exciting and dramatic elements; the pot that spills, the steak that burns, the screaming matches between chefs who both want to use the last burner on the stove.
None of that is present in Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros. Instead, Wiseman shows us four hours of all the stuff that commonly gets cut out of other cooking reality shows and documentaries, the real nitty-gritty process of what it takes to run a restaurant of this caliber. The conceptualizing of dishes. The sourcing of ingredients. The prepping. The tasting. The plating. The serving. (The clients of Le Bois Sans Feuilles sure have a lot of food allergies, and the staff has to be prepared how to work around all of them.)
I suppose one could say that these moments are the fat that other more traditional non-fiction works about cooking trim out to get to “the good stuff.” I would offer that Wiseman is like the chef who knows that you don’t throw away those trimmings; you save them and make a stew. Menus-Plasirs is a glorious stew of ideas and images and conversations. Scene after scene is riveting. One section, where members of the staff visit a facility that makes and ages cheese, could have been an entire movie unto itself for all the fascinating information it contains.
Though I highly doubt Wisemen or anyone else on the crew ever even considered it, Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros plays like a four-hour long rebuke to The Menu, the 2022 dark comedy about an ultra-exclusive restaurant not unlike Le Bois Sans Feuilles, the deranged chef who runs it, and the repulsive diners who eat there. Intended as a satire of the haute cuisine world, it instead played like a mean-spirited dismissal of anyone who might derive any pleasure from making or eating great food. The creators of that movie apparently could not conceive of a reason someone might want to eat at this sort of establishment, and seemed to have total disdain for anyone who would. Wiseman offer four hours worth of reasons; because when you have a meal at a place like Le Bois Sans Feuilles you taste all of that work and thought and process in every morsel on every plate.
At four hours, Wiseman’s movie is certainly long. (Wiseman’s movies usually are.) There’s been a lot of complaints lately about long movies. But Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros needs to be long in order to show you all of the work that went into those plates of food. To cut out the trips to the pasture or the dairy farm or the wine cellar, to skip over the part where the waitstaff goes through each table’s substitution requests, would be to miss out on an essential part of the process. And if one of those processes fails, Wiseman suggests, the whole system goes down.
During one of Michel’s many rambling, charming conversations over plates of mouthwatering food, he quips that his grandfather used to say “Cuisine is not the movies.” In Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros, though, it is, and in a wonderful way.