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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

'The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab'

Romance on a plate

Food — once abhorred by Hollywood directors like Billy Wilder for the way it "messed up a scene," (on the other hand, iced drinks and cocktails were a favored adornment) — has become as important to cinema as romance. Or even more so, if the recent batch of self-help manual-like love stories are any indication.

The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Stick with it, son: Jesus Almagro in "The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab" © MMIX NEW LINE PRODUCTIONS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Jose Luis Lopez-Linare
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: Spanish, French, English
Opens Oct. 1o, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Food in movies has an allure and provides the kind of sensory satisfaction that love stories just can't seem to muster anymore. As my neighborhood sushi chef, Yoshida-san, is fond of saying: "You get tired of a pretty face much faster than the sight of the side of a really fresh tuna."

In this sense "The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab" (released in Japan as "Fighting Chef") nourishes the spirit and offers a kind of seamless joy that goes beyond mere gastronomical delight (though there's plenty of that too).

Just as the best rom-com can transport the viewer from mundane reality to a more heightened level of existence, so does this film take the viewer to a completely exotic space: inside the confines of the professional chef's kitchen where the steam rising from a pan of meatballs speaks of passion, feverish commitment band the infinite mysteries of the heart.

"The Chicken . . ." is a documentary by Spain's Jose Luis Lopez-Linare and the film unfolds around the prestigious cooking competition known as Bocuse d'Or, held once every two years in Lyon, France. The competition was launched in the late 1980s by famed Lyon native Paul Bocuse, who remains one of the most prominent chefs of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement — in France, it's widely acknowledged that without Bocuse and his legion of followers French cooking would still be about steak and potatoes sauteed in butter, which satisfies the palate but falls short of making that leap to art form and culinary wonder.

Bocuse dedicated his life to elevating French cookery onto the exalted plane it occupies today and accordingly, in the film he refers to the competition as the "Nobel Prize of cuisine."

Chefs from around the globe apply for a slot in the tournament and after a severe filtering process 24 chefs from as many nations get their coveted tickets to Lyon.

Lopez-Linare pursues the process of their training, planning and preparation; the overall impression is that of teams of athletes (despite Bocuse's description) pushing themselves to excel in the Olympics. And just like the Olympics, the chefs must adhere to a set of detailed and complicated rules, based on the traditional methodology of French cooking but without compromising their individual approaches to the meal (patriotism and "national color" is a big asset). And finally, they must satisfy the league of 24 judges, most of whom are older, superconservative men with the most demanding palates in the world. "I am not going to win if I am the only one who's happy with what I cook" observes one chef. On the other hand, a judge says plaintively: "Who are you? What are your thoughts? What do you want to say with this dish? The answer must be in the first bite that we take, otherwise you lose."

Lopez-Linare builds the story around one chef in particular: his own countryman Jesus Almagro, who in Spain has become a culinary legend with his creations gracing the tables of the famed Pedro Larumbe restaurant in Madrid. Still, at the Bocuse d'Or, no Spanish chef has won a medal in two decades.

The suspense builds as various interviews and events (especially entertaining is a fishing expedition chasing Norwegian halibut) gradually come to settle like hor d'ouveres around the entree that is Almagro.

For six months he works on his menu and submits the results to a team of culinary consultants. They pile on the criticisms ("There are too many taste sensations here, it's sloppy!" is one putdown) and tell him to start over. Nights, weekends and holidays — Almagro and his team labor on, and still he feels far from true gastronomic artistry.

In the end, the most instructive culinary event in the film comes after the tournament: Almagro relaxes in his mother's kitchen where she is preparing a homey meal of veggies and meat frying in a pan and her son, his battle over, looks on it with the eyes of a doting lover.

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