Continuing cinema’s recent documentary tour of exquisite restaurants few people are lucky enough to visit in person (a tantalizing/agonizing trend that includes El Bulli: Cooking In Progress and Jiro Dreams Of Sushi), Step Up To The Plate peeks into the kitchen of Bras, a three-Michelin-star recipient nestled in the Aveyron countryside in the south of France. The establishment is the domain of Michel and Sébastien Bras, a father-and-son team who approach their haute cuisine with the pensive seriousness others might bring to a difficult math problem—Sébastien, the younger, even does some wrestling with an elusive dish over pen and paper, far away from a kitchen.
The food they produce is beautiful to the point of resembling a still life. Early in the film, director Paul Lacoste and cinematographer Yvan Quehec include a close-up of the assembly of one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the gargouillou de jeunes legumes. It’s made to look both luscious and painterly, each dab of flavoring or new vegetable appearing on the plate as if added by an invisible hand.
But Step Up To The Plate is as much about the passing along of a legacy as it is about cooking. Though there’s a close examination of process and how Michel and Sébastien Bras work with their staff to maintain the quality of their dining experience, the film’s main focus is on Michel’s preparations to hand off control of his creation of his son, and Sébastien’s facing comparisons with his father and his need to add his own touches to the menu.
Michel and Sébastien have a fond but wryly weighted relationship, and Step Up To The Plate captures the former sometimes stepping on the latter’s authority in front of his staff, or giving him a hard time in the kitchen. But the two are also collaborators, sharing a deep trust and understanding, as well as similarities allowed to come to light with a satisfying subtlety. A scene late in the film in which Sébastien explains a dish consisting of elements inspired by his father, mother, and grandmother connects the culinary with the personal in a way that’s suddenly, startlingly moving. The through-line from a rustic preparation of milk skin and chocolate on bread to a high-concept dessert illuminates the story of a family and how food unites generations.