Rating: 2/5The ongoing entanglement between culinary expertise and overly simplistic celebrity has got to be reaching a saturation point. There’s an overabundance of cooking competition shows clogging network schedules, previously obscure honors such as the James Beard Awards are breathlessly handicapped by keyboard gourmands across the blogosphere and there can’t be a single second of the day when television screens are entirely isolated from a shrieking Gordon Ramsay. In some ways, the clearest and most venerable precursor to the current era of chef celebration is the Michelin Guide, a publication issued by the French tire manufacturer since the turn of the last century which brought fame upon certain chefs through the stingy issuance of three star reviews, the pinnacle of praise, for restaurants. The star assignments, famously determined by a fleet of well trained, anonymous “inspectors,” immediately conferred stature and notoriety that could change careers but also leave chefs haunted by the pressure of maintaining their high ranking.
Given the reputation of the exalted review and the dramatic intrigue associated with it, the new documentary Three Stars seemingly begins with a nearly foolproof premise. Director Lutz Hachmeister trains his cameras on multiple chefs who’ve snared the coveted trio of stars in the Michelin Guide and tries to present, through simple observation and talking head interviews, what makes them special. Or maybe how the prize of the rating has impacted them. Then again, it might be about the changing face of the culinary world and how an aging institution does or doesn’t keep pace with it. Too often, Three Stars seems to be about all these things (and more) all at once, in the process gradually becoming about nothing much at all.
Hachmeister’s design is probably meant to convey the full scope of a complicated field, but it winds up becoming simply dizzying. Just as he is getting at something interesting about the ways the Michelin Guide was perceived when it made its first foray into Japan, pushing up against a culture clash developed from the difference between valuing humble work versus grandiose accolades, the film abruptly shifts to considering the strangeness of a lauded restaurant nestled in the middle of a European neighborhood swarmed with seedy sex shops. There’s no contextual blending, no development of theme. The film just shifts from one idea to another like someone surfing channels. The few moments when Hachmeister shows the inherent links between drastically different restaurants—a montage of markedly different establishments preparing for the evening with practically identical preparatory rundowns is an especially strong example—are intriguing, but they’re too rapidly replaced with more disjointed ideas. Multiple sub-topics that could prove fascinating, such as the precarious economics of high-end restaurants which often depend heavily on wine sales for continued fiscal survival, are given only glancing consideration before racing down some new, half-developed avenue.
Three Stars, then, is a little like a heaping plate of surprisingly undistinguished buffet food with a few enticing morsels that can be sorted out. There’s the chef who compares the high-end dining experience to theater, with the concurring footage of the simple showmanship of the servers in his restaurant, presenting dishes like they are crown jewels. Even the occasional rattling off of menu items offers a glimpse of just how bizarrely separate this realm is from the experience of most eaters. Perhaps that’s finally what tripped up Hachmeister in making the film. It was such a strange, different place that he plainly couldn’t even figure out how to draw up the map.