There are plenty of movies out there for viewers who want to whet an appetite. Just the thought of Babette’s Feast is enough to get one’s mouth watering. (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, not so much.) Still, for those who are more interested in the oft-fascinating figures who produce haute cuisine—in the people who both thrive and crumble under the pressure of creating the finest dishes and obtaining the highest ratings—here are some illuminating documentaries on chefs. (Bonus feature—you’ll likely still find some mouth-watering moments.)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick
Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr
In Three Stars, documentarian Lutz Hachmeister profiles 10 chefs who have earned a Michelin three-star 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.
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. —Annlee Ellingson
In the United States, vocational expertise is too often belittled, ignored or otherwise considered secondary when compared to traditional academic degree paths. This is not the case in countries like France, which not only respect such careers, but has a system for awarding vocational excellence. The Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (One of the Best Craftsmen of France) awards are the subject of intense, demanding competitions in a wide range of a areas. For Kings of Pastry, directors Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker were given unprecedented access to film the MOF competition to determine the best craftsmen in the field of pastry-making. The result is a fascinating and dare we say, tasty, look at the rigors of the competition and the personalities—specifically chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer, Regis Lazard and Philippe Rigollot—striving to achieve the distinctive red, white and blue collar that winners wear. —Michael Burgin
Director Sally Rowe follows the Big Apple-based career of British chef Paul Liebrandt through a decade as he navigates critical tastes and moves in and out of kitchens and consulting gigs before ending back in the kitchen of his own restaurant. An HBO original presentation, A Matter of Taste serves up the normal array of themes and issues one expects in fictional and nonfictional depictions of high-level cuisine—high-pressure expectations in the kitchen, the ever-present threat of pedestrian palates and marketing-motivated menus, and critical opinion that’s both needed and, potentially, damning. Watching Liebrandt practice his craft throughout it all is a rewarding experience for foodie and culinary heathen alike. —Michael Burgin