Stage: The Culinary Internship
(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Abby Ainsworth
Foodies eager for fine dining likely won’t be hitting restaurants any time soon. For sophisticated eaters who crave one elaborate and delicately tweezer-placed edible objet d’art after another, take out simply doesn’t do. Fortunately, the world of food documentaries offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of food porn to satisfy any cravings. Abby Ainsworth’s Stage: The Culinary Internship is the latest gastronomic documentary available for curbside pick-up. At a quick 78 minutes, one spends less time in the kitchen than one does on the first few courses of a three-hour meal at Alo. However, the Toronto-based filmmaker’s portrait of Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain, might be the closest many people get to haute cuisine in Europe for the near future. Chronicling the restaurant’s intense nine-month apprenticeship program that seeks to distinguish the Jamie Olivers from the Guy Fieris, Stage provides a nibble to satisfy the cravings.
Stage observes as 30 new recruits assemble at Mugaritz for the new season. These eager young chefs, selected from a pool of 1500 international applicants, anticipate a gruelling but rewarding few months of culinary boot camp. They gush about the fusion of art and food at Mugaritz and share their aspirations to be one of ten finalists to advance to the next round of “research and development” in which the interns work with the pros to develop new dishes and experiment with new flavours. Run by founder Andoni Luis Aduri, Mugaritz is a haven for avant-garde cuisine. It redefines food with dishes like an “oyster kiss” that features minced bivalve atop a handball-sized globe of crushed ice. Guests savour goblets of crystallized pine nut essence, or nosh on egg yolks cured with seaweed and enjoy fermented apples for dessert. The secret ingredient to each delectable dish is the spirit of the intern who made it.
Ainsworth gets the cameras tight and close as the interns tackle the difficult dishes of Aduri’s menu. They perform menial tasks of mise en place, like chopping and prepping, before learning the delicate balance of science and art that creates the fine foods. Stage zeroes in on a handful of interns, including Japanese hopeful Kim, Polish contender Pawel, and Spaniards Alex, Inès, and Sara—the latter being the stealthy dark horse of the class. The cameras observe as the interns slice and chop frantically. Some master the dishes more easily than others do, while some struggle with language barriers and cultural customs.
The film develops a steady pattern of sweating and prepping with a cutaway shot of Jade, a Mugaritz pro leading the training, casting disapproving looks in between them. This unpaid internship program seems as brutally exhausting and demanding as the interns and staff describe it. There are dropouts and there are tears, but anyone who believes in suffering for his or her art may come out stronger in the end.
Ainsworth and cinematographer Ben Ainsworth do justice to Mugaritz’s culinary art with some handsome shots that evoke the aromas and flavours of the program’s elaborate dishes. There admittedly are some fascinating elements to the high-stakes cooking school that the doc doesn’t probe. The unpaid nature of the nine-month intensive, for one, isn’t questioned. There are also fascinating elements of gender and cultural divisions in the program might have been furthered explored to tap into the larger dynamics of power and exclusion in the restaurant biz. For example, one scene sees a frustrated Kim acknowledge that the Mugaritz way of cooking a Japanese-inspired dish isn’t conventional, while others thrive in their ignorance of the cultural fusions before them.
In the same way that one learns about the textures and nuances of the many dishes, one wishes the doc gave more insight and context for the students themselves. When so many reality cooking shows dive into the personal stories of the chefs delivering the creations, while also presenting the sweaty and salty goodness of the kitchen heat, Stage demands a little more beef (or vegan equivalent) on its plate to capture fully the passion, drive, and dedication of the hands behind the food we eat. In the same way that such high-end eateries provide scrumptious morsels, one doesn’t leave Stage feeling full, but rather with a broadened palette of curiosity.
Stage is available on CBC Gem for Canadian audiences and on demand for international readers.
Trailer (embedding disabled)