Two foodie docs worth watching
Netflix has over five million subscribers in Canada, including thousands in Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m one of them. Lately I got hooked on Netflix documentaries about food, restaurants and chefs. I’ve reviewed two I liked.
Directors: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
“For Grace” is worth watching even though it takes the best part of half-an-hour to get interesting. It’s the story of Chicago chef Curtis Duffy and the creation of his and sommelier Michael Muser’s restaurant called, Grace. Duffy is no average chef. He may be a Salieri instead of a Mozart, but Salieri was far from average. They don’t make documentaries about average chefs or average restaurants.
Duffy’s culinary talent got noticed early, by his Johnstown, Ohio home economics teacher, Ruth Snider. (Snider became an important influence on, and supporter of Duffy.) Before long he was working for the late, renowned Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter. Duffy also worked for star chef and mentor, Grant Achatz (pronounced, ackets, like jackets without the j). Duffy’s cuisine has been called “the bridge between Trotter’s and Achatz’s.”
The most absorbing parts of “For Grace” aren’t about building a new, exceedingly high-end restaurant – although, I admit, the bit about paying $1000 each for 90 chairs did get my attention. (No surprise later when I saw servers using Rowenta steam irons to smooth out Grace’s table linens.) The truly compelling scenes – like something from an episode of NBC Dateline – involve betrayal and tragedy.
We’re led to believe by Duffy, and the commentary of others, that Charlie Trotter was a generous, compassionate human being who gave Duffy a break when he first landed in the Windy City. Curt Duffy was the kid who devoured Trotter’s cookbook, “Charlie Trotter’s,” the kid who vowed to some day work at Charlie Trotter’s, learn at the master’s feet, and ultimately did.
Then comes the scene, filmed in the style of a W5 or 60 Minutes ambush, where we see and hear – although barely hear, thankfully subtitles were used – the master spurn, embarrass and figuratively spit in the face of his student. Duffy and his group are about to enter Charlie Trotter’s for dinner, as a way of showing respect for the chef who gave him his start, when the master himself, Charlie Trotter, appears on the doorstep to – and here’s where the film gets intriguing – turn Duffy away, as if he were a demon.
“Get the f__k outta here,” says Trotter, “I wrote you a cheque for $50,000. You better get out of my sight. Get the f__k outta here.”
Duffy, we discover, had been part of a lawsuit brought against Trotter and Charlie Trotter’s by former employees who had accused Trotter’s of not paying them appropriately for overtime hours. Curtis Duffy explains on camera that he couldn’t remember being part of the suit but that he remembered receiving a cheque for $50,000 and spending the considerable sum on travel, to experience and learn about other cuisines.
On the heels of the doorstep slap-down Duffy concedes that he respects Charlie Trotter for his accomplishments, but adds, “Do I respect him [Trotter] as a person? No. I worked with him for three years. He’s a monster.”
The human face is a changing canvas. Some, like Duffy’s, transform subtly and less often, but when change comes, it can be read as easily as the words you’re looking at now. Watching “For Grace” it’s not hard to discern Duffy’s motivation, to understand why Charlie Trotter goes from being seen first by Duffy as benevolent and then, malevolent. There’s also no doubt about it being engrossing footage, used to full effect by a competent filmmaker.
Later compelling, emotional scenes involve the account of Curtis Duffy’s father, Robert “Bear” Duffy, who, with meticulous planning and preparation, cold bloodedly murdered Curtis’s mother, Jan, and then killed himself. This happened when young Duffy was still living near home and cooking at Muirfield Village Country Club. After the tragedy Ruth Snider becomes even more of a support and essentially fills the role of surrogate mother.
We see a tender, slightly stiff reunion – perhaps due to intrusive cameras and lights – of surrogate mother and son at the end of the documentary. Grace opened nine months behind schedule and Snider was invited to be special guest at the opening night dinner service. No doubt Ruth Snider was also invited to the premiere of the film, “For Grace.” I hope that Charlie Trotter was invited too. He certainly deserved to be.
Director: Erika Frankel
Erika Frankel’s “King Georges” is about a chef, a flickering era and a fading restaurant. It begins – with appropriate symbolism – on a very dark, cold morning. It’s 4:03 a.m. and Philadelphia chef, Georges Perrier, in a hoodie, looking tired and scruffy, is making his way into a wholesale vegetable market to shop for the coming day’s menu. It’s in sharp contrast to later scenes that show the same man in white holding sway inside the gold trimmed, chandeliered, rococo style dining room of his famous French restaurant, Le Bec~Fin. (It means “a fine beak” or “a gourmet.”)
“King Georges” is a documentary of contrasts: between busy kitchen and sedate dining room, classic and contemporary cuisine, young chefs and seasoned chefs, formal and casual dining, hope versus despair, blessings and loss. The film’s brisk tempo is set by these competing antipodes. Its rhythm is like a roller coaster ride; a ride that ends with the loss of Le Bec~Fin, but only after we’ve seen Georges Perrier try to reinvent and resuscitate his iconic restaurant.
Perrier is the kind of chef who worked 16 hours a day, often 20 if he did the early morning market run. He was on the job prepping, cooking and managing every day. Perrier was in harness consistently because he needed to be sure his food was the best it could be, day after day. That’s why Le Bec~Fin was once named the best restaurant in America and remained one of the best for 40 years.
Georges Perrier became a star chef – some say, in jest, a Sun King – because of his profound dedication to Le Bec~Fin, and only because of that dedication. He didn’t have a TV show, nor did he produce a series of cookbooks, nor did he have and flog his own line of pots and pans like many latter-day star chefs.
There may be chefs like Perrier these days but they’re rare. Plenty have equivalent culinary talent but they aren’t Georges Perrier. Chefs of his personality and temperament are being eclipsed by chefs with less flair, who don’t wear their passion on their sleeves. Not even the talented Nicholas Elmi, Perrier’s chef de cuisine, is in Perrier’s class. Elmi is the supporting star of “King Georges.”
Nicholas Elmi was hired by Le Bec~Fin in 2004 after the closure of André Soltner’s famous Lutèce, one of New York’s best French restaurants. Philadelphia’s Le Bec~Fin was a natural fit for a young chef schooled at the highest level of classical cuisine. Elmi is different from Perrier in many ways, cool instead of fiery. He maintains a balanced life, can accept defeat and move on.
“King Georges” tells Perrier’s story well. Vintage footage and interviews with everyone from his mother and brother to culinary icons like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, to Ed Rendell, 45th Governor of Pennsylvania, help put Georges Perrier’s life and career in context. Candid interviews with Perrier and Elmi make the story complete, or as complete as it can be in 1 hr. 17 min.
One gratuitous scene in “King Georges” featured Georges Perrier throwing a tantrum in Le Bec~Fin’s kitchen, in the middle of service. A chef had burned the topping on a dish as it was about to be served. Perrier completely loses control and begins screaming and swearing. Or did he lose control? Was it staged? Chef Perrier had a reputation for being a stereotypical French chef who could rant with the best of them. Perhaps someone found a subtle way of suggesting it would be good for the documentary if it included one of his anger fuelled spells?
In situations where people know they’re being filmed they tend not to lose control, unless they’re acting. Whether the scene was genuinely spontaneous or not, we didn’t need to see it. It was enough to hear, as we did, Nicholas Elmi say that Perrier had a reputation for being a tyrant, but that the reality was opposite. He described somebody with a big heart who would do anything for anybody. “King Georges” had enough tension in scenes to do with the struggle to save Le Bec~Fin from being shuttered. We saw it, over and over, in Georges Perrier’s eyes.