Last year, I was asked to write about Entre les Bras for the French Review, the official publication of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF). The editor of the film section of the Review, Dr. Michèle Bissière, lives and teaches in North Carolina and is active in our chapter of the AATF. She attended a presentation I made about my sabbatical or about cooking with my students. Not sure which. Anyway, she sent me a copy of the documentary, asked me to watch it, and write a review. Wow. Documentaries about French food and chefs are right up my alley after falling in love with Jacquy Pfeiffer in Kings of Pastry. Durham, NC hosted the North American preview of the film as part of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and I wrote a review about it for our local newspaper. Jacquy and his wife were in the audience, no less.
I watched Entre les Bras (Step Up To The Plate is its English title) several times and set about writing and daydreaming about actually eating there. I am not sure that dream will ever come true, but I started thinking about it again after recently reading Ann Mah's book Mastering the Art of French Eating. Journalist Ann actually went to the Aveyron départment of France and interviewed Sébastien Bras. And Papa Michel came in while she was talking to his son.
I realized that I haven't posted my review. I had grand plans to send it to Michel and Sébastien after it was published last spring, but either common sense got the better of me or I've been too shy to do so. Silly me. I need to mail it off with a fan letter. Pourquoi pas?
Read the review and if you are in the mood for beautiful views of la France profonde, cows, and a glimpse into the life of a Michelin star chef, rent the film.
The parents of one of my 8th grade students have actually been to the restaurant in Laguiole... Sigh.
Lacoste, Paul, réal. Entre les Bras (Step Up To The Plate). Michel Bras, Sébastien Bras. Cinéma Guild, 2012.
I recently read the story of Bernard Loiseau, a chef who committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 52, after rumors that his restaurant might lose one of its three Michelin stars. Remembering that tragic story and considering that we have elevated chefs to rock star status in the United States, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a documentary about a three-star Michelin chef. Would Michel Bras be a temperamental egomaniac? Would he spend his time berating the wait staff in his restaurant or slamming pots and pans? Or would he be riddled with self-doubt? Or worse yet, would he have no confidence whatsoever in his son and heir-apparent, Sébastien, and belittle him?
Bras, père et fils, have a restaurant and hotel in Laguiole, in the Aveyron department in southern France, built on a hill with a breathtaking view of the valley below. Michel Bras is undoubtedly a perfectionist, as the viewer quickly finds out by watching him choose vegetables, herbs, and flowers for the restaurant. His ties to the land where he has spent his entire life seem to be as deep as his family ties. Michel is a slight, serious man, a runner, with round wire-rimmed glasses who looks more like a university professor than a chef. He is, however, quite an entrepreneur and has built an empire based upon his expertise in the kitchen.
Food is the Bras family business. Michel’s mother ran a restaurant and he followed her, taking over and earning Michelin stars. He decided to build his current showpiece several years ago, secure in the knowledge that Sébastien would stay with him in the endeavor. The premise of the movie is that Michel is ready to retire and hand over the reins to Séba, as he calls his son. I expected the movie to be mostly about Michel, but I found myself just as engrossed in the emotions of Sébastien and the idea of family duty. There never seemed to be a question of what his life’s work would be. The photos of him at a very young age in a chef’s coat and toque made for him by his grandmother foreshadow his destiny. But is it easier to start from scratch as Michel did or to inherit an empire and try to stay on top?
Entre les Bras is divided into seasons, a fitting and logical setting for a movie about food and life. The story comes full circle, in the course of a year, from spring to spring, watching four generations of family interact with one another around food. Sébastien works on his own signature dishes, telling his own story, built on the time spent with his grandparents on their farm. One touching scene shows Sébastien alone in the kitchen creating a dessert that he later calls his own chemin, or pathway, using elements from his childhood: bread (his dad), milk skin and chocolate (his mom), and blackberry jam and Laguiole cheese (his grandmother). He seems truly at peace with the completion of this dish. He must find his own way. He knows this and his dad knows this.
The changing of the guard occurs as the viewer watches Michel take down his photos and mementos from the office bulletin board and put away his notebooks filled with recipes and drawings. Sébastien’s notebooks and a final scene of Alban, Sébastien’s son, cooking in the kitchen with his grandfather, wearing a miniature chef’s coat and toque, replace them. Michel’s work isn’t finished yet.
From one of the first scenes, showing the plating of Michel Bras’ signature dish, Gargouillou, to the beauty of the Aubrac sunrises and sunsets, this is a stunningly beautiful and poignant story of the humans behind the creation of legendary food.
Bon appétit, les Bras!