World’s top-ranked chefs shoot for the stars
In everyday America, where we are nothing if not star crazy, a three-star rating may not seem so impressive. Don’t our kids get three stars just for turning in their homework? That’s how it seems, anyway.
But in international restaurant circles where the Guide Michelin series has long been a tastemaker - that would be Europe, first and foremost - three stars is a holy trinity, a blessing visited annually on only around 100 restaurants worldwide. Careers and fortunes can rise and fall on the guidebooks’ awards say both its promoters and those they anoint. The men and women (but mostly men) behind the food are the focus of “Three Stars,’’ a 2010 documentary by German filmmaker Lutz Hachmeister that is screening at the Museum of Fine Arts beginning today.
Hachmeister, whose previous documentaries include “The Goebbels Experiment’’ narrated by Kenneth Branagh, made “Three Stars’’ for television, which frankly seems like the best way to see it. Though this latest film journeys far - from Paris to Tokyo to New York as it pops in on the lives of nine elite chefs at various levels of stardom and star rankings - it never goes very deep or big. The chefs are often less impressive than they should be, even on a small screen. That’s probably because there’s not nearly enough time spent with most of them, although fewer minutes with the schmooze-happy Jean-Georges Vongerichten (chef-owner of numerous restaurants, including one in Manhattan’s Trump Tower) would be welcome.
The person you’ll wish you could spend a whole movie with, if not be adopted by, is Nadia Santini, chef and cheerleader for three generations of family running Dal Pescatore, in the Italian countryside north of Parma. Her radiant personality and gentle, Old World approach to the nurturing of recipes, colleagues, and clientele provide the counterpoint to frenetic, confrontational kitchens run by scientist-chefs, the masters of so-called molecular gastronomy, including Spain’s Juan Mari Arzak (restaurant Arzak) and Denmark’s René Redzepi (Noma). We also visit with France’s Yannick Alléno (Le Meurice) and Olivier Roellinger (Le Coquillage), Germany’s Sven Elverfeld (Aqua), the Netherlands’ Sergio Herman (Oud Sluis), and Japan’s Hideki Ishikawa (Ishikawa), who represents the Michelin guides’ successful 2008 expansion into Asian markets. They talk more than they cook in this documentary, which is a pity all the more glaring because when they cook, my God, do they cook stunningly, from simple homemade pastas to white asparagus spears dotted with tiny caviar blinis and a hint of salmon cream, or indulgent theatrical statements like rhubarb baked in a sugar crust that is cracked open with a hammer, tableside. Go big or go (eat at) home, right?
The criticisms voiced by Michelin’s detractors - its guidebooks are elitist, its testers old and fat, its powers inflated, its competitors rising - all get fair airing, though they’re often batted down too quickly by Jean-Luc Naret, the guides’ unhelpfully slick director. Maybe because Hachmeister has a background in journalism, his movie endeavors to educate by covering a lot of ground in its 90-plus minutes, which is certainly commendable, it’s just not that satisfying.
There’s no such thing as a three-star Michelin buffet guide.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.