In an early sequence in the documentary Step Up to the Plate, about a father-son culinary duo, the camera floats above a white plate as it fills with ingredients: first smudges of mashed yellow peppers and sesame powder, then leaves, wild herbs, peas, flower petals. It's a collage in shades of green and pink and off-white, assembled with meticulous care and a bit of sentimentality—a veritable meadow, ready to eat.
The slow-building beauty of that sequence continues throughout this documentary from director Paul Lacoste. Though its English-language name makes it sound like a baseball flick (the French title is Entre les Bras), Lacoste's quiet documentary has nothing to do with the national pastime. Step Up follows lauded chef Michel Bras as he hands over his three-star Michelin restaurant to his son Sébastien (whom he calls Séba). Along the way, it features some truly artful shots of the Brases' culinary creations—this is sculpture, not Pinterest food porn. Lacoste often shows Séba alone in the kitchen as he whisks blackberry jelly or cautiously skims the skin off milk, the sounds of metal against ceramic the film's only soundtrack. Séba stands at the counter, hands on hips and brow deeply creased. "I don't know," he mutters. His perfectionism borders on piety, with a generous dash of self-criticism.
Michel is more playful. As he and Séba rib each other and debate the placement of foie gras on the plate, Michel's face crumples into an impish smile. Still, Michel's vision is no less exacting. When Séba presents him with a meticulously constructed dish—a Japanese-inspired dessert of rice paste, soy milk and mochi—Michel studies it like a homicide detective looking for clues. The anxious Séba matches his father's intensity. "Stop looking!" he finally erupts. "Food is for eating!"
Lacoste's intimate but unobtrusive film work—he forgoes third-person narration—conveys Michel and Séba's closeness, but sometimes lacks an essential tension. There's no doubt about Séba's ability to inherit his father's legacy (the kid wore a chef's toque as a toddler). But Step Up's tranquility is also one of its strengths. Compared with Top Chef's shouting matches and melodrama, some thoughtful meditation can be a very welcome thing.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Step Up to the Plate opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.