Saturday, November 3, 2012

Step Up To The Plate (Rhoades)

“Step Up to the Plate”
Is More About Family
Than Food for Top Chef

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Michel Bras is perhaps France’s most revered chef. His Michelin three-star restaurant overlooking Laguiole, a small village in the remote Aubrac Mountains of south-central France, is internationally famous. Restaurant magazine voted it the 7th best in the world, though arguably it’s one of the top three.
Now in his sixties, he was faced with a question: what would become of his beloved restaurant when he retires?
Filmmaker Paul Lacoste’s documentary “Entre les Bras” (English title: “Step Up to the Plate”) gives us the answer: In 2009, Bras decided to turn it over to his son Sébastien. Séba – as his father calls him – had been working in the family restaurant for some 15 years.
But was he ready?
Dressed in white, from his shirt to his clogs, Michel Bras cuts an imposing figure in his kitchen. The idea that he can turn it over to his son is hard to contemplate. In the opening of the film, we see him studying family photographs that picture him and a younger image of Sébastien. “Time flies,” he muses.

“Step Up to the Plate” tells the story of that transition. And in the process it profiles a family that has been devoted to Haute Cuisine for three generations.
The family business was a hotel-restaurant in Laguiole. Michel learned to cook from his mother, who still occasionally makes the Aligot dish with maestria. “I’d like to thank my parents who gave me the chance to exist as ‘a son of,’’’ he says, paving the way for his own son.
As American celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who worked in the Bras restaurant as a young man, explains his mentor’s genius: “Bras is out there. Cerebral. He didn’t apprentice in a great kitchen. He’s had no dogma beaten into him.”
While known for the purity of his cooking, Bras utilizes “complex techniques to elevate humble ingredients like onions, bread and mushrooms, with astonishing, often whimsical results.”
He’s also written a number of cookbooks. “Michel Bras Essential Cuisine: Laguiole, Aubrac, France” and “Notebooks of Michel Bras: Desserts” among them. He’s noted for his chocolate coulant with blue cheese. He also invented the now-ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. His signature dish is the gargouillou (gar-gu-yu), an Aubrac classic of potatoes and ham.
A reclusive, bespectacled man, with a missing fingertip, he’s content to let epicureans come to him in the hilly Aubrac region of France – or read his cookbooks. He refuses to open a restaurant in New York.
We Bras are quite simply enamored of the Aubrac plateau,” he says on his website.  “It’s a place that seems to float like a conversation between Earth and sky. There are strong bonds which link man with his native land, with the familiar landscapes, the summits, the springs which sculpt their way across the pastures.” 
Yet Michel Bras is a smart businessman, trading on his gastronomical fame.  Inspired by Laguiole’s legendary knife-making tradition, Japanese knife manufacturer KAI commissioned him to design a line of chef’s cutlery. One seven-piece set is priced at $3,155. (Note: Bras’s missing fingertip was caused by an accident on a ladder, not the slip of a kitchen knife).
While working in the kitchen, Michel Bras rarely smiles. He speaks only to give a quiet direction. He will spend two hours peeling onions. He makes salads that include 60 individually prepared vegetables, flowers, and seeds. Dinner might take 8 hours of prepping. Perfection is a serious quest.
His son is different. “With Sébastien, we love the cheerful kitchen that provides amazement and joy. That is why our plates are animated with a multitude of … visual elements, fragrant, tasty, textures which awaken the sensations.”
The placement of food on a plate is like a work of art, a culinary painting. Father and son gently quibble over the streaks of foie gras and traces of pepper juice, one seeing it as a right-hander, the other as a leftie.
Sébastien and I like cheerful cooking that brings surprise and joy,” he says. “It is why we enliven our plates with many different combinations that I call niac. Niacs are structures of visual, scented, and tactile elements that sharpen the senses and prepare for new discoveries.”
Filmmaker Paul Lacoste allows us to witness these extraordinary dishes being prepared by father and son. But it is the intimacy of their relationship that comes through. Family is paramount to Michel Bras. “Often, chefs take themselves too seriously,” he says. “I now serve these dishes to my grandchildren. The luxe of the table is the joy you find around it.”

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