Among a million other things, Jiro Ono will notice if a customer is left-handed, and seat him or her accordingly at one of the 10 seats of his thee-Michelin-star sushi restaurant. He’s devoted every waking moment of his 85 years to the quest for perfect sushi. Just ask his wife, who never sees him. Jacquy Pfeiffer, founder of The French Pastry School in Chicago, subjects himself to insane pressure, and more than a little humiliation, as he competes against 15 of France’s leading pastry chefs, hoping to earn the tricolor collar that would signify him as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France). The staggeringly complex, ornate pastries they create are as much architecture as confection. When one falls to pieces, so does its creator.
Brian McClintic, Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, and Dlynn Proctor are four young men who have forsaken their family and friends – and invested a small fortune — to master the fiendishly difficult exam that will certify them as master sommeliers. Almost no one passes.
“Every time I open a cheese like this, I get emotional. In my blood, there’s balsamic vinegar. My muscles are made by Parmigiano.” Chef Massimo Bottura isn’t really kidding. His American counterpart, Dan Barber, thinks often of the price of this obsession, of “being attracted to a certain kind of abuse. It’s exhilarating, and the challenge is: How much of it can you stand? Is that the way to live a happy life? I don’t have the answer.”
Over the past few years, there’s been an awful lot of high-end food porn on our screens. (Thanks, Anthony Bourdain.) But these documentaries – gorgeous as they often are – deal with something more. They’re about the pursuit of absolute excellence. The monomaniacal devotion to art. The cost of greatness.
There is indeed a high price to pay, but the results can be inspiring. Each of the films is exceptionally well made, with directors like David Gelb (who helmed both Jiro and Chef’s Table), Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. These folks know how to tell a story. The men (and one woman) they profile are compelling – if more than a little crazy. Come for the food and wine. Stay for the life lessons.