The Missing Ingredient
(Canada, 87 min.)
Written and directed by Michael Sparaga
What is the recipe for success? Or, better yet, what key ingredient transforms a successful enterprise into an institution? Michael Sparaga tackles these two questions in the flavourful doc The Missing Ingredient as he chronicles New York restaurateur Charles Devigne’s ambition to overhaul his joint Pescatore’s and match the iconic level of nearby culinary landmark Gino’s. Institutional status eludes Pescatore’s, though, despite Devigne’s effort to overhaul the place in every possible way. Turning a restaurant into an institution isn’t as easy as adding a dash of ambition, a pinch of trendy pizzazz, and a hint of bacon. The search for this mysterious X factor makes The Missing Ingredient the 20 Feet from Stardom of foodie flicks.
The Missing Ingredient follows Devigne as he revamps Pescatore’s with hopes of making it the next Gino’s, which is going out of business despite its popularity and history. In what seems like an episode of Kitchen Makeover taken to the extreme, Devigne revamps his menu, changes the décor, and replicates key aspects of Gino’s including the restaurant’s iconic red wallpaper patterned with zebras that are missing a stripe on their rear ends. The tacky zebra paper is only part of Gino’s secret sauce, however, since it combines with an overall aura of home-cooked quality kitsch to appeal to New Yorkers’ palettes.
The doc offers an overview of Gino’s history so that audiences may appreciate the status to which Devigne aspires. In conversations with the descendants of Gino’s co-founder and namesake, Gino Circiello, as well as the restaurant’s jovially cantankerous chef, devoted patrons, food critics, and industry peers, Sparaga draws out the different flavours that make Gino’s so memorably palatable even after its closure.
Gino’s certainly seems to have “it” in the way that Studio 54 became an institution, albeit a short-lived one, in a sea of discotheques. The reactions to Devigne’s effort to copy Gino’s iconic vary with some interviewees calling it an honour, while others offer charges of blasphemy or even shed tears. Devigne’s decorator even resigns over the zebras. Fellow restauranteurs, on the other hand, resist the label of “institution” with concerns that it makes a place sound stale, while a food critic notes that the question might be futile when basic success and survival are more essential recipes to master than institutionalisation. The Missing Ingredient shows the difficulty in building the next Gino’s, or the next Le Cirque, Tavern on the Green, or other iconic eatery when tastes differ so widely in field with high turnover rates.
The stories from the league of Gino’s faithful eaters highlight something that Devigne cannot capture in a mere remodelling: collective memories and shared experiences. Sparaga’s film resonates with this nostalgia for restaurants that feel like a member of one’s family. As more and more businesses close in urban areas due to surging rent costs and condofication, The Missing Ingredient affectionately pays tribute to a receding flavour in the food scene as longstanding eateries foreclose and find themselves replaced by chain restaurants, fast food joints, and ephemeral hotspots slinging the season’s new fad. Institutions like Gino’s, or any longstanding independent business that builds relationships with its guests, are ultimately becoming an ingredient that is sorely absent from gentrified communities.
The missing ingredient might therefore be the social energy that thrives in restaurants. The Missing Ingredient savours the pleasure of sharing a meal with friends and family, and of making a social occasion out of the act of refueling one’s body and taking in some grub. An institution evolves not from the food on the plate or the zebras on the walls, but through the stampede of people who pass through its doors and return, eager to introduce new friends to the landmark or break bread with the community that thrives inside.
The Missing Ingredient opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on July 15.