Film Reviews

Review: ‘Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen’

What defines greatness is all a matter of taste

Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen
(Denmark, 82 min.)
Dir. Rasmus Dinesen

What defines great cooking? The cleanliness of a plate scraped clean? The price of a plate? The ratio of second helpings to one? A healthy burp?

Director Rasmus Dinesen explores the peculiar culinary hierarchy of Michelin Stars in the documentary Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen. The film features top chefs from around the world who dish on the pros and cons of the controversial rating system. The Michelin Stars are an odd scheme, as is any arbitrary classification model for assigning stars and ratings in the arts, but they wield enormous influence. The system awards one to three stars for excellence in culinary delights. People travel the globe to eat at top tier Michelin restaurants like one might visit the Seven Wonders of the World. Only 113 kitchens worldwide have the coveted three star distinction, but there are surely more great satisfying eateries than that number. What defines greatness is all a matter of taste.

Dinesen’s doc goes down pretty easy with a nice balanced palette of interviews and behind the scenes footage. There might not be many new flavours, but fans of foodie flicks are bound to say “nom, nom, nom!” while listening to the chefs and seeing them in action. The range of access and the objectivity with perspectives from all sides makes for a balanced meal.

The cooks offer a consensus that good cuisine has several consistencies from kitchen to kitchen. Fresh ingredients, proper cooking times, and a hint of character that adds the chef’s personality to a dish like a well-balanced pinch of Himalayan salt are all essential in the recipe for greatness. Beyond those vague unifiers, however, good cooking is another kettle of fish. As one chef notes, one can’t compare the buttery cuisine of a Parisian bistro to the noodles of a small soba bar in Tokyo. A single star system can’t account for region, culture, and the rich history in which beloved dishes steep with memories and traditions.

It depends on the palette of the beholder, Dinesen’s doc notes as the chefs who have attained Michelin Star status agree. René Redzepi, for example, the master chef behind the Danish restaurant Noma, throws his hands in the air with exasperated defeat when asked about the rankings. World’s Best Restaurants deemed Noma the best restaurant in the world four times between 2010 and 2014, yet the bitter taste buds of Michelin only grant him two stars. The chefs explain the painstaking detail of revising menus, whipping up culinary identities, and exploring new ways of blending tradition with contemporary flavours. Baking is a science and cooking is an art, and there are simply too many variables that make for good eating.

These stars are also the source of nervous breakdowns and the seeds of toxic work cultures. A troubling sequence on the drive for perfection notes the pervasive abuse one encounters in kitchens. These stories are popping up in the wake of the #MeToo conversations and Michelin Stars adds more tales to the kitchen. Toxic masculinity goes beyond the casting couch and there are costs to the haute cuisine that satisfies the world. Very few of the interviewees are women and Dinesen finds conflicting values within the discussions. Just look at how often the chefs talk about food bringing people together or reminding them of their heritage, only to note that receiving a Michelin’s Star was the proudest moment of their lives—until they remember the births of their kids, or their wedding days, and correct their statements.

However, there is no denying that the perverse star system works. Tales from the Kitchen is often drolly heavy-handed in its characterization of the Michelin reviewers as the covert KGB agents of world cuisine, yet the seriousness with which both the chefs and the foodies discuss the coveted stars illustrates their esteem. At the same time, Tales from the Kitchen explains how Michelin Stars are a chef’s honour, but finds the arbitrary merits of their origin and assessment part of their appeal, like an unexpected ingredient that makes any old dish pop.

These stars, after all, are a marketing tool for a company that sells rubber car tires. With the aid of one interviewee who assesses the star ratings with a conspiratorial whisper, the doc notes how Michelin devised the system to encourage destination dining. Citing a restaurant as worthy of a trip inspires people to drive more and, in turn, buy more tires. If this business of assigning value to the arts is all a marketing ploy, it cheapens the appeal. Michelin is better suited for McDonald’s and drive-thru “cooking.”

The doc doesn’t define the chefs by their stars, but rather by the philosophies and recipes that Michelin aims to spotlight. Tales from the Kitchen serves this foodie delight with the warmth of comfort food to let one savour the good grub that reaches for the stars. The film features an international cornucopia of dishes and perspectives to illustrate the broad range of culinary practices both included and omitted by the rating. Every chef and every diner has his or her own delight. Warm cinematography highlights the drive for perfections that goes into each dish the chefs prepare. A bit more time spent on the food than on the chefs might have yielded a richer flavour, but the mouth-watering bounty is a treat for filmgoers who may never afford the pleasure of Michelin-rated stars food in the flesh.

Tales from the Kitchen screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Wednesday, March 7 and Thursday, March 8 as part of the Doc Soup Series.

Director Rasmus Dinesen will be in attendance for Q&As at all screenings.