Très bonne table
By Julien Allen
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Dir. Frederick Wiseman, U.S./France, Zipporah Films
Two gentlemen of a certain age are dining together at Troisgros, seated at an interior table to the left of the main entrance. They speak French to each other during dinner, one of them with a discernible foreign accent. As per his habit, the chef César—the son of head chef Michel Troisgros and grandson of one of modern cuisine’s heavyweight masters, Pierre Troisgros—wanders from table to table, timing his appearances to coincide with the patrons’ dessert or coffee. Several diners are English or American, but César (whose culinary upbringing included a short formative spell under Thomas Keller in Napa) speaks excellent English and doesn’t rush his conversations just to ensure he gets through everyone; his timing seems to be his own and he listens happily as the diners seek to regale him with their opinions and stories. He indulges them as he feels they have indulged him by sitting at his table. When he arrives alongside the two gentlemen, he recognizes and greets one of them, the ex-artistic director of the Comédie-Française, Marcel Bozonnet, who is an occasional visitor. Bozonnet’s elderly companion, though, is not familiar to César.
As they exchange post prandial pleasantries, Bozonnet introduces his friend as “an American filmmaker, un documentariste, Frederick Wiseman.” “Enchanté…” replies the young chef, half-intrigued. Wiseman counters, softly: “I would like my next film to be made here, about you—and your restaurant.” César is momentarily touched by this sentiment from a sweet old man he’s never heard of; though he finds it hard to take it terribly seriously. He recognizes the unmistakable surfeit of gratitude which impregnates most of his customers after an immaculate dining experience (not to mention a bottle or two of Côte-Rôtie), which leads them to florid pronouncements and promises of this kind, ideas which frequently dissolve in the light of the following day. Warmly bidding both men a bonne continuation, César repairs on his journey through the room. Later in the back office, something gnaws at him, and he googles Wiseman’s name.
“Papa, viens vite!” César exclaims on the phone to his father, who is stationed that evening at their sister restaurant in Iguerande, La Colline du Colombier. “There’s this immense cinéaste in the salle and he wants to make a film about us… I think he’s serious.” Digéstifs are poured, apologies are offered, and details are exchanged. Michel jumps in his car immediately and drives the half-hour journey from the hills above Iguerande, a little village nestled between the limestone slopes of the Côtes Roannaises and the rolling valleys of the Brionnais, down through the town of Roanne, then back out again to the village of Ouches, the bucolic site of Le Bois Sans Feuilles (the new name of Maison Troisgros since 2017) and into the universe of Frederick Wiseman.
This story was told to me by César Troisgros in July of this year. I have since tried to imagine it as a sequence from Menus-Plaisirs itself, but it doesn’t fit. To begin with, even this tiny story has a conventional narrative and—as an introductory color-opening to this review—a telegraphed purpose. Secondly, there is too much added description and subjective observational detail, some of which comes from César’s telling of the story to me, and the rest of it being my own embellishment, from my knowledge of the restaurant and firsthand observation of César at work.
Wiseman’s work features no such stories, not in any typical sense, and delivers no additional detail, exposition, narration, or information other than what his camera captures and provides. The first shot of Menus-Plaisirs provides as good an illustration of this as any other: it is a static establishing shot of the exterior of the train station in Roanne. The station has been repainted since Troisgros moved away from its glamourous 1960s hotel headquarters on the street corner directly opposite the station in 2017 (this hotel building, once housing one of the greatest ever restaurants, is glimpsed briefly here, vanishing from our view as quickly as it appeared). The railway station used to be painted green and pink, in homage to Troisgros’s signature dish (saumon à l’oseille—salmon poached in cream, white wine, vermouth and flavored with sorrel). Everyone in Roanne knows this. Wiseman undoubtedly knows it too, but he feels no pressing need to share it. He simply opens the film with an image of the station. It locates the action in that area of France and appears to do little else. The station just…belongs here, and we don’t need to know why. This is how Wiseman films the world. He doesn’t expose, he eavesdrops. He doesn’t inform, he invites. He doesn’t lecture, he listens. In this way, his world—the world of institutions, of work, of skill, power, and function, of all the things which make it turn—becomes entirely ours. Wiseman is like a passerby on the street, who, attracted by noise and light, steps into a café out of the rain. Like him, we know and are told next to nothing. We only see, hear, and discover.
None of this is to say that Menus-Plaisirs has no structure or thread. A cursory, almost subconscious observation of how this four-hour film plays out reveals distinct sections corresponding to services at the main restaurant (lunch and evening) and one evening in between at the Colline (with a very quick daytime diversion to Léo’s popular food truck on the Place de l’Hotel de Ville in Roanne), bound together by a chronological pattern of the culinary experience as viewed from the perspective of the providers: assembly and discussion of ingredients, discussion of specific menu or recipe choices, pre-preparation, prep, cuisine, service, observation and care of the clientele, aftermath. In other words, the lived experience of those who work at Troisgros.
If there are occasional jumps back and forth in time and space, they never distract us from this overarching, comfortingly logical narrative. It is not for Wiseman to startle or interpolate us with an artistic coup, nor a sudden revelation which colors everything that went before, nor—God forbid—a cliffhanger or plot twist. To disarm the audience in any such manner would be to distract us from the privilege of simply witnessing, and of discovering this august institution with unburdened clarity and serenity. We are as privileged as guests at the restaurant itself: we cannot taste anything other than with our mind’s palate, but on the flipside, we get a level of access which no meal ticket could buy. This seat at the top table is a privilege afforded to the very few, given that the stripped-back format of Menus-Plaisirs exists completely outside the grammatical norms of the ultra-popular, commoditized tabloid documentaries littering the top ten rubrics of our streaming services.
Wiseman embedded himself for three months within the workings of the Troisgros estate, briefly explaining at the outset to the family his methodology (minuscule crew, ever-presence, non-invasion, etc.), informing himself of the calendar and movements of the three men and then simply silently turning up for work every day with a minimum of fuss. (This contrasts with the production of a film like Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, where most of the time Wiseman was given no advance notice of the speaking calendar.) He didn’t seek to dictate anything about what should occur: no mise-en-scène beyond the on-the-spot decision of where to place the camera and microphones, nor what he “needed,” because he only needed to discover as he went along how it all worked, tacking as closely as possible to their reality au quotidien. Wiseman follows and reacts, gleaning clues to his overall structure as shooting progresses, knowing that in the many months of postproduction this film will find and take its shape.
The work of choice alone in the editing process is monumental, using—by Wiseman’s own calculation—for every one of his films on average 3% of the raw footage that is available for rushes (a film like Menus-Plaisirs thereby necessitating around 135 hours of rushes). His work could be described in culinary terms as a grand reduction, whereby a chef reduces their sauce over time to concentrate its flavors. But instead of such an apposite image, we might prefer to imagine a museum curator with ample exhibition space and a wealth of carefully collected artwork at his disposal, his decision-making dictated by the need to create a single narrative, linking the materials in a manner as to show maximum loyalty to the subject’s essence. It isn’t just the quality of the ingredients that determines the outcome, but the curator’s received understanding of that essence, extracted during the shoot, then perfected during the edit.
Consecrating this methodology, Wiseman has a tremendous flair for what matters. In the case of Troisgros, it is family, excellence, and terroir (soil). Aside from the lengthy, sometimes discursive conversations between Michel and his two sons, César and Léo, about specific foods, flavors and combinations, Wiseman also semi-juxtaposes a sequence where his baby granddaughter (César’s daughter, Onaure, after which one of the current desserts is named) is fed in her highchair in the kitchen of the restaurant, with a conversation between Michel and a diner about how fussy this diner’s children are about eating. Michel spoon-feeds Onaure and later defends the fussy unseen child, observing sympathetically the complexity of the evolving palate. “Children see how we fulfil ourselves with food,” Michel says, noting—in a way Wiseman surely appreciates—that the secret of passing on knowledge is to expose a child to your own enthusiasm for it, rather than seeking to impose on them your expectation of theirs. The miracle of the Troisgros legacy is the ability of three generations of chefs from the same family to retain the restaurant’s 3 Michelin star status—a cachet incorporating a level of pressure that has led other chefs to suicide—for more than 50 years. Michel’s youngest son, Léo is a looser, flightier chef but still an inspired and inspiring successor, despite a tendency to overstuff his recipes with elements. He is visibly unperturbed by his position behind César in the hierarchy and he has been given a degree of freedom at the Colline du Colombier. The calm, irrepressible older brother César is the natural inheritor of the Troisgros legacy. When you combine and contrast the charisma of the two men, it is impossible to imagine this three-star status not enduring for at least another generation.
While therapeutically long kitchen sequences of young chefs tempering chocolate, bowdlerizing crayfish, and searing duck are shot as dispassionately yet lovingly as the factory floor work in Belfast, Maine (1999) the paternal—as opposed to patriarchal—figures of Michel and César emerge on occasion to mollify our experience of these sequences with their benevolent teaching. The closest this series of pedagogic interventions gets to a dressing down—the like of which one imagines must be legion in all such institutions—is when Michel confronts a sous-chef with the time lost and ingredients wasted by his lapse in concentration while disgorging calves’ brains in vinegar. This touching sequence culminates in Michel later explaining to the unnamed sous-chef that he cannot go wrong if, in future moments of uncertainty, he returns to the Talmud and Torah of cuisine: Escoffier and the Larousse Gastronomique.
The visits to local producers (in particular to a local Charolais beef farmer who explains his commitment to biological pasture) are not only descriptive of the practical day-to-day but also symbolic of something fundamental in the restaurant’s makeup, which is the need to be grounded in the Roannais, a region rich in produce, both raw (meat, milk, cereals, vegetables, grapes) and manufactured (Pralus bakery and chocolaterie, Mons cheesemakers, both nationally recognized and prized artisans, and Sérol wine from the Côtes-Roannaises, a robust Beaujolais-style gamay whose reputation has exploded thanks to Troisgros’ championship). The grounds of the Ouches estate itself provide fruit, vegetables, herbs, and numerous wild ingredients, from frogs to elderflowers. To this fecund ecosystem Michel Troisgros has added foreign influences from his own travels, particularly in Asia (characterized in the film by the almost comically repetitive mention of shiso). A dining experience at Troisgros comprises the incorporation of Japanese ideas into a defiantly local menu, presented in accordance with Pierre Troisgros’s nouvelle cuisine tradition. Time and time again, this devotion to terroir shines through, verbally and visually. Sacrilegious as it feels to even articulate this, no paid advertisement for the restaurant could ever come close to communicating the appeal of this message.
Per social psychologist Ervin Goffman, everyone comes into the world as an individual, they assume a personality, and then they become that personality. This is wholly reflected in Wiseman’s philosophy of performance. To Wiseman, a non-invasive camera changes nothing in the process of a human being simply playing the role of their own life. Not for Wiseman the hang-ups of cinéma vérité purism or hidden cameras, because in the great theater of life, we are all more or less concerned with showing our best side, articulating our best interests and creating a spectacle by our actions which we want others to see. In other words, we are all acting anyway. The only condition Wiseman sets himself is that the camera must serve the purpose of capturing the subject and not interfere further—any looks to camera, for example, are cut in the editing process. But this inevitably means that Wiseman must accept (within reason) a divergence in how his protagonists react to the camera’s presence by instinct—and the results are illuminating.
The kitchen staff range between indifferent and shy. César and Léo both behave throughout the film in a manner that suggests to the audience that they are either unfazed by, or even unaware of, the camera’s presence. In the more calculating César’s case, one might judge it as a performance of sorts purely to feign unconsciousness of the camera, while with Léo, his pronouncements and behaviors betray the fact that he clearly couldn’t care less. Michel is the most fascinating performer of all because he clearly has written himself the role (presumably in life, but also in the film) of Master of Ceremonies. This means we get from him numerous expository speeches designed to get the Troisgros message across, about the history of the restaurant, his family, his views on wine prices, his culinary values, his love for Japanese cuisine, his feelings on mixology and combination. They serve as fruitful context to the audience as much as to the diners or the staff, but one is entitled to question if Michel—the current keeper of the Troisgros flame, after all—was just being himself, or whether he was fulfilling a perceived presentational duty to the film.
Wiseman’s decision to retain these speeches (despite his stated dislike of dissertation) might have necessitated a balancing act between their utility and their veracity. At other times, Michel loses himself in his articulated thoughts—taking longer than we might imagine is necessary when deciding whether he believes or cares whether red currants are still in season—in a way that can only be wholly real. César told me of an off-camera incident when Michel had asked Wiseman if he could agree not to include in the film a sequence where Michel had tied himself in emotional knots about the timing of preparation/service of rognons de veau (veal kidneys), which he had been embarrassed about. (Wiseman placated Michel at the time, and the sequence appears shortened in the final half hour, reflecting more than anything in the film the pressures inherent in the job and the fallibility of even the greatest artists.) Their visits to various suppliers and the discussion with the sommelier Christian on the state of wine prices tend to contain expository dialogue which even if natural, still appears contrived. These passages, while evocative and true, do not have the in-the-moment rigor of an At Berkeley or an Ex Libris.
There are certainly one or two challenges in Menus-Plaisirs, none of which are to do with its duration. (The lengths of Wiseman’s films tend to fit the complexity of their subject matter, which is why Boxing Gym  lasts under two hours and Near Death , about the ICU at Boston’s Beth Israel hospital, lasts nearer six; the breadth of effort, skill and thought which goes into maintaining an institution like Troisgros demands and deserves equal allocation to each piece of the process.) Rather, the difficulties with Menus-Plaisirs emerge primarily from the creeping reality of what we are witnessing, namely a striving for excellence on the part of the institution itself, which is simply not matched by the world around it. The numerous mentions of dietary requirements—including modern dietary concepts and demands which would have been wholly unthinkable in the golden age of French cuisine and which drive a coach and horses through the meticulous conception processes which the film captures—range between utterly deflating and frankly laughable (one adult diner only eats chicken; Pierre Troisgros would have shown them the door before they had taken their coat off). A small party of unspeakable wine bozos who would not look out of place being pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen, are given just enough screen-time to ram home the terrible truth that substance, manners, and self-awareness—key ingredients of the Troisgros experience—are frequently absent in so many of those who are rich and entitled enough to consume it.
This succulent late chapter in the 100+ hours-long movie that is Frederick Wiseman’s career culminates in a moving closing sequence of Michel doing his rounds one more time. He tries to explain to a diner that the luxury of Troisgros comes from the beauty of the surrounding trees in Ouches, not in extravagant upholstery, or old masters on the walls. This made me think of the ultra-brief entry for the Hôtel Troisgros in a dusty old 1961 Michelin guide I once pulled as a child from my grandfather’s bookcase in Roanne: two crossed wheat sheaves were awarded to the hotel itself, with a single three-word sentence: “Très bonne table.” At the time I saw this as damning with faint praise. But this cleansing, purifying simplicity, a characteristic of Wiseman’s own ethos—eschewing as he does all cinematic distraction and textual manipulation—engenders both immense trust and a belief in better: two concepts of treasurable rarity at a time of a burgeoning contempt for artistry and a systemic decline in standards.
Interviewed in the current Michelin Guide, Léo Troisgros was asked: “What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about cooking from your father?” to which Léo replied: “Do not confuse simplicity with ease.” Did Wiseman find a kindred spirit in Michel Troisgros? When Michel cheekily exclaims “la cuisine, c’est pas du cinema” (to emphasize the impossibility of fakery or cutting corners) he couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate target. As the final titles appear on the screen (producer, director, editor: Frederick Wiseman), we hear the service notes from the front ring out once more: “Ladies and gentlemen I have six covers with four grands menus, two menus enfants, one diner with no seafood or crustaceans, six asparagus, four scallops, two mousseron tartellettes, four escargots, two saumons à l’oseille, one substitution…” leaving us with a familiar feeling after a magnificent meal: overcome by a nourishing, restorative sense of continuation.