It’s strange, isn’t it, that the Michelin Man, cousin to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, graces the cover of the most esteemed restaurant guide in the world. Somehow the roly-poly cartoon character just doesn’t jibe with the haute cuisine discussed inside. And yet Michelin’s three-star system defines high-end dining, the addition or subtraction of a star making or breaking the chefs who vie for recognition.
In Three Stars, documentarian Lutz Hachmeister profiles 10 chefs who have earned this top rating, exploring their culinary styles, from molecular gastronomy to sourcing local ingredients, and their kitchen rituals. There’s some attempt at globalization, with the inclusion of Frenchman Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Eurasian eatery in the Trump Tower in New York and Hideki Ishikawa of Tokyo, where the Michelin rating just doesn’t mean as much. But otherwise the subjects are from France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Italy, a strongly Eurocentric showing that belies the guide’s claims that it’s broadening its standards as to what types of establishments can garner a star rating.
Failing at a comprehensive approach, Hachmeister may have been better served by narrowing his attention to fewer subjects and focusing on the food. Unfortunately, the images of the plates aren’t especially beautiful, and equal weight is granted to the cooks’ philosophy about food (fascinating) and the operations of their businesses (not so much—computerized reservation systems just aren’t that interesting).
Meanwhile, in an attempt at plot, the film alludes to the immense pressure chefs feel to earn—and then keep—their Michelin stars, centering this aspect of the narrative on Olivier Roellinger, who has opted out of the Michelin star system. But such intensity isn’t necessarily demonstrated other than a questionable association to the 2003 suicide of Bernard Loiseau.
Loiseau’s notorious death could just as easily be attributed to financial issues, another theme touched on, but not fully explored in Three Stars. Most diners could not discern between a three-star and one-star restaurant, but apparently the difference is one of solvency and ruin.
If Three Stars has a thesis, it’s a critique of the Michelin star system—for its historically narrow definition of what constitutes a star-rated dining experience and for the strain it puts on chefs’ reputations and finances. But it’s a gentle critique—so gentle that the film ultimately lacks any flavor or bite.
Director: Lutz Hachmeister
Starring: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Yannick Alléno, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Sven Elverfeld, Sergio Herman, Hideki Ishikawa, René Redzepi, Olivier Roellinger, Nadia Santini
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012