Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
(France/USA, 240 min.)
Dir. Frederick Wiseman
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)
“Cuisine isn’t cinema,” Chef Michel Troisgros tells his baby granddaughter in Menus-Plaisirs. “Cooking is real.”
Frederick Wiseman, master of observational cinema, gamely meets Chef Troisgros’ challenge. The 93-year-old filmmaker’s latest opus, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros may not be as “real” as sitting down to dinner at La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France, but it’s the fullest and most complete experience one could have at the restaurant that proudly carries three Michelin stars, short of running it for decades. The hotel and restaurant, famed for its signature “menus plaisirs,” or small pleasures, offers daily creations that fuse the finest practices of French cuisine with bursts of international flavour. Never one to expect diners to satisfy their cravings with small plates, however, Wiseman’s hand for durational cinema allows one to savour all the flavors of these rich dishes. Tuck in and eat beforehand, because Menus-Plaisirs is fours well spent with good company and great food.
Wiseman and cinematographer James Bishop take food porn to new heights here. The dishes at La Maison Troisgros may be modestly portioned, but they demand a big screen to capture the complexity and attention to detail that bring foodies to the country abode from around the world. Immaculate cuts of fish are plated with eel to accent their buttery. texture. Duck—glorious duck!—sears in a pan, bubbling and spurting in its own fat and juices while the skin crisps just right. Crusted racks of lamb are prepared to the perfect degree of rareness with scientific precision. Snails soak up butter, while crawfish sing with glee and make the ultimate sacrifice for culinary art. The rustic bread and butter alone look worthy of the trip.
From Farm to Table
The camera tours the room as the guests savour the dishes with their palettes and cameraphones. Each dish, Instagrammed carefully by the diners, is a meticulously assembled feat. The attention to detail, moreover, isn’t simply in the plating. As the chefs prepare and perfect the dishes, Wiseman’s film observes how the layering of ingredients—acids, fats, salt, and the Asian basil that Troisgros favours—work carefully together to create a symphony for the taste buds.
Wiseman gives extensive attention to every stage entailed in mounting the Maison Troisgros experience. The chefs’ plan of attack is twofold. It begins in the market where farmers and fishmongers display their harvests. The chefs, including Michel’s son Cesar, who is next in the chef succession line, examine the goods, consider seasonal ingredients, and whip up a tentative menu. The battle plan slowly forms.
Then, however, the front of house staff presents Michel, his wife Marie-Pierre, and Cesar with the list of guests dining that night. All bets are off once the dietary considerations kick in. Many guests don’t want fish. Others prefer not to enjoy the succulent lamb. Pesky vegans complicate the menu, while pescatarians confuse the chefs. The chefs obviously groan through the list with tongue-in-cheek humour: They respect the guests’ diets and allergies. It’s more that they lament the poor diners who won’t get the full Troisgros experience. But the chefs seem really angry with a few regulars who eat nothing but chicken. There’s no greater foul than flipping Troisgros the bird in one’s list of requests.
Wine and Cheese, Wiseman-style
Shaking up the menu matters, though, because food is only part of the experience. The other half is, of course, wine. The wine pairings at La Maison Troisgros are a high-priced, high-art experience. Chefs and sommeliers peruse the tentative menu and draft ideal pairings from the cellar. It’s through the wine that Menus-Plaisirs uncorks the elite status of the menu. Troisgros observes that one particularly excellent vintage drew inquiries from loyal clients looking for their favourite €5,000 bottle. The price, however, jumped to €10,000 during the COVID years. The sommelier can’t help but be sour grapes when he’s priced out of stocking the cellar with the finest vintages.
But Wiseman certainly knows how to stick his nose into the glass and sniff out the Troisgros experience. Boorish diners make a show of swirling and smelling their wine. Wiseman captures their idiosyncrasies with the right sense of humour—why can’t people indulge in such pleasures?—but also can’t help but notice the audible show these guys make in the relatively tranquil dining room.
Every wine also calls for good cheese and Menus-Plaisirs offers the finest cheese board ever put to film. The dessert course at La Maison Troisgros trucks out a cart the size of a billiards table with cheeses of all shapes, sizes, and colours—both stripes and solids—beckoning the bellies of peckish dinners. The doc also features a hearty sequence that takes audiences inside the cheese-aging process. Cheese rinds are unexpectedly thrilling, especially when guests pick their cheeses with glee based on the topography of the wheel’s outer layer.
Eating Until the Cows Come Home
One might be wary of the epic running time of Menus-Plaisirs, but this is not the time to be a picky eater. Enjoying a meal at La Maison Troisgros is an experience that demands time to chew and savour. Having lived in France for the last many years, Wiseman seems to have found his equals. Nobody moves too quickly at Troisgros—it’s not that service is slow, it’s that the players know they can’t rush perfection. Moreover, the film is a fine companion to his 2013 opus National Gallery in capturing the full machinery of an institution with the distinct cultural flavour that keeps it running.
Taste-testing sessions, for example, account for more time than most people spend eating a full meal. But watch Michel and his staff test a dish of kidneys cooked with a sauce of passion fruit and sriracha. They attack the sauce again and again until it hits the sweet spot between tangy, spicy, and salty.
Wiseman also situates the rustic destination within its eye for local ingredients. Following the first night at the restaurant, the camera goes outside to observe the lush green grounds. The Troisgros cows are grazing and the camera considers the farm-to-table life cycle in action. The restaurant staff talk about how much longer the cows need to age and fatten up. All the while, the cows keep grazing. They munch up the grass, relishing the sunshine and the fresh greenery at the teeth. Wiseman keeps the camera trained on the cows as the cooks keep talking. For all the impeccable cuisine inside the building, the happiest diners seem to be the ones chewing on the greens. They savour each bite, just as the camera relishes their desire to eat to their hearts’ content. It’s a wonderful sight: cuisine meets cinema.