Producers: Frederick Wiseman, Karen Konicek and Olivier Giel Director: Frederick Wiseman Distributor: Zipporah Films
It takes an impish sense of humor to title a four-hour film “Small Pleasures,” which is what “Menus-Plaisirs” means; but Frederick Wiseman’s immersive documentary is positively reverential in its attitude toward the dedication the generations of the Troisgros family have given to their restaurants in France’s Loire region for nearly a century. The film, the most recent in Wiseman’s celebrated series studying institutions from within, may be long, but while it doesn’t exactly fly by, it remains engrossing throughout.
The primary focus is Le Bois sans Feuilles, the newest of the establishments operated by the family, the first of which opened near the railway station in Roanne in 1930. (The name, which translates as “The Forest Without Trees,” has a bit of impish humor about it, too. The restaurant, located in the countryside, is adjacent to a hotel where guests stay while partaking of the cuisine. The rustic ambience, which sometimes sees staff going out into the surrounding woods to collect wild plants, is part of the charm.)
Le Bois sans Feuilles, opened in 2017, the latest of the restaurants operated in the region by the Troisgros family, which have been awarded Michelin three-star status since 1968. It is presided over by Michel Troisgros, the grandson of the first restaurant’s founding couple, who served as its chief chef until turning that responsibility over to his eldest son César. But he and his wife Marie-Pierre continue to play major roles in overseeing the restaurant and its adjacent hotel, and their younger son Léo is chef at a second, more intimate, family restaurant La Colline du Colombier, located a short distance from Roanne.
As usual with Wiseman, narration is studiously avoided, but we’re nonetheless informed about the family history through the remarks that Michel offers to diners awaiting their food at their tables. (Wiseman’s method is ostensibly unobtrusive, with James Bishop’s cinematography and Jean-Paul Mugel’s sound recording always discreet, but Wiseman’s editing is carefully selective.) We’re also introduced to the workings of the large kitchen when he takes a couple on a tour and describes the rationale behind its open-space arrangement—as well as the many sequences showing the staff preparing dishes (often receiving rather brusque instruction from Michel whenever something goes slightly wrong.)
There are also numerous interactions between the staff and diners as the waiters carefully take orders and deliver them. (There’s also a brief segment in which staff members voice their complaints about their treatment.) One of the most remarkable aspects of the restaurant is that, unlike many temples to haute cuisine, the Troisgros operations leave ample room for substitutions on the basis of allergies and even simple preferences. As a result the kitchen staff must always be on its toes, debating what alterations in the basic recipes might work to meet a diner’s particular needs. Nor is the expense ignored. It won’t be long, after a discussion of the wine prices by the sommelier, that most viewers will admit that a trip to the mainstay Troisgros operation is well beyond their means.
As for the menu, the film begins with sequences showing members of the family visiting the local outdoor market to purchase produce, and Michel, César and Léo discussing in detail the dishes to be offered, depending on the availability of quality ingredients; a later scene shows Michel tasting a new dish proposed by Léo and questioning the proportions in the recipe, encapsulating the differences that can arise between an erstwhile innovator now turned more traditionalist, and a son pushing for continued innovation. But excurses also take them to their sources—small local farms where cattle are raised for meat or goats for cheese, operations where cheeses and wines are carefully aged, and fields where vegetables are grown. These demonstrate that as perfectionist as the Troisgros are, those they work with are no less so. The overall impression is of a system that results in meals that represent the culmination of the utmost care at every stage of preparation.
The leisurely film is a cinematic feast for those interested in the highest of cuisine, as well as a tribute by Wiseman to a family devoted to the maintenance of the highest standards in it—a salute by one artist to another.
On a light note, there’s a tradition of drinking games that spring up around some movies—usually comedies popular with the fraternity crowd. One could easily devise a high-end version with this film; just challenge viewers not to actually take a sip of wine, but merely to smell the cork, every time the words “John Dory”—a popular entrée—is spoken. Most players would be woozy before “Menus-Plaisirs” ends.