I have to admit that I’m an epicurean chump of the first order – I can spend money on quinoa and obscure spices like asafoetida more quickly than I can pronounce them: is it ‘aso-fo-ti-da’? I can watch, and genuinely enjoy, almost anything to do with cooking. This is because cooking has become a sort of therapy for me – pacifying and forcing me to slow down. Since I associate the act itself with pure comfort, watching food programs on television or films about cooking provokes an (almost) equal sense of calm. In short, I’m a foodie wanker – and I’m not alone; there are millions of us out there.
Amidst the general landscape of consumer culinary curiosity, over the last eighteen months a series of documentaries have been released that profile the world’s top chefs: Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz BSO), Ferran Adrià (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress), Jiro Ono (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and René Redzepi (Noma at Boiling Point). In different ways, the films all showcase deeply monomaniacal men – gods of the culinary world. All have repeatedly earned several Michelin stars for their cuisine, creating the sorts of dishes that make Jamie Oliver look like a well-meaning home cook. For these men, as the documentaries show, food is art. So what makes food as fetish such a compelling spectator sport? Specifically, what might render the Virtuosic Chef Documentary – as I’m calling it – so particularly enthralling?
Chef Ferran Adrià says in El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, ‘we’re not concerned about flavour at this point’ – as they begin a process of testing and analysing ingredients – ‘that comes later.’ For six months of every year his (now permanently closed) restaurant, El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, shut its doors so that his team of chefs could dedicate themselves to creating a menu of ‘entirely new’ flavour combinations. When the documentary was shot in 2009 the resultant menu was ‘all about water’ (not, I would have thought, the most ‘new’ or flavoursome of ingredients, but there you go). Water, hazelnut oil and salt are carefully combined and drunk from expensive scotch glasses, or water is frozen into the shapes of bowls, to be chipped away at and eaten by mesmerised patrons. Like much of the food presented in these documentaries, water becomes a thing of beauty and sophistication, abstracted from any essential physiological imperative or connection to the body.
Paradoxically, the blurring of the necessity of food to the body in many of these films comes at a time when, for so many people, the body’s need for food has been of greater concern than ever. Quoting Abdolreza Abbassian from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rudy Ruitenberg notes that in 2010 there were 925 million ‘undernourished’ people across the globe. That’s a massive jump from the UN’s estimated 850 million in 2008. Given these figures, it’s an understatement to say that the food as art phenomenon being explored in culinary documentaries, and the global social reality are worlds apart.
The current interest, then, in the Virtuosic Chef Documentary might be a case of cinematic escapism. The popularity of musicals, with their ethos of happiness and lavish prosperity, peaked during the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis then experienced in American history. Now, as the Global Financial Crisis marches on and food prices across the globe continue to rise, food is being presented as luxurious spectacle.
If these documentaries are indeed escapism, then an integral part of the food-as-art fantasy presented in them is undoubtedly the spectacle of the virtuosic (male) chef.
In an article published in Esquire in 1996, David Foster Wallace described the ‘ascetic focus’ of professional tennis players as ‘a subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.’ Like professional athletes, these top chefs possess extraordinary skill that is the culmination of life-long dedication and sacrifice, bordering on masochism.
Perhaps, then, these documentaries pique viewers’ fascination by offering a sort of double escape from the everyday. Undeniably, the luxuriant, abstracted cooking presented in them is as fantastical to most viewers today as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dripping in jewels and fur, were to cinema-goers in the Depression era. And, world-class professional athletes notwithstanding, few of us would have any real experience of the ‘ascetic focus’ it takes to become a top chef.
In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which explores the life of master sushi maker Jiro Ono, we learn from an apprentice that it takes ten years to be skilled enough to make tamago (omelette) sushi; the final result looks like an inhumanly delicate sponge cake. In the end, what these films present is the very human dedication required for food to become something entirely unlike food: art. It is a combination of elements that for some – including me – is irresistibly strange and delicious.
Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.