Culinary Masterpieces: Special Edition Box Set Review: Appetizing Flicks

The four films collected in the new Culinary Masterpieces box set provide an alluring glimpse into the world of high-end dining. I must admit that I had never previously considered myself a “foodie,” but that has changed a bit, thanks to the ubiquitous Gordon Ramsay. It seems like he is introducing a new series on the FOX Network every week, and he has become a huge guilty pleasure of mine. I find the combination of a Michelin-starred chef who swears like a sailor while demanding the finest from his staff to be an irresistible combination.

Programs such as Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen served to introduce me to this world, but even an admitted neophyte such as myself can see that they are highly scripted and predictable. So when the opportunity to view four relatively recent foodie-films presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I must say that for anyone with an interest in this world, the Culinary Masterpieces set is well worth a look.

There is a tendency among pundits to characterize decades with pithy one-liners. The ‘60s were “revolutionary,” the ‘70s were “the me decade,” and the ‘80s were “glitzy and glamorous.” As I remember it, the ‘80s began and ended in recession, but that is too complicated I guess. The idea of the Wall Street yuppie was the prototype, and the only place he would consider eating at was Le Cirque.

Le Cirque was so famous that even a grungy twenty-something from the Northwest such as myself had heard of it. Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven is the story of a family’s reluctant attempts to grow and change with the times more than anything else. The restaurant was founded by Sirio Maccioni, who is definitely a character. He is treated as a peer by such luminaries as Woody Allen, Henry Kissinger, and Rudy Giuliani.

The film chronicles the move from the original location in the Palace Hotel to a new site. Maccioni is reluctantly bequeathing his empire to his three sons, but has a very difficult time in ceding power to them. The younger Maccionis want to make the new Le Cirque a little less exclusive, to make it a little more relevant to the everyday customer. Every decision is fought by Sirio, and watching the family dynamic play out is quite compelling. One finds themselves forgetting all about the huge amounts of money and prestige that are at stake, and focusing on the age-old dilemma of the generation gap.

The 74-minute film builds towards the climactic moment when The New York Times review of the new Le Cirque is published. As someone who is still not completely versed in the various subtleties regarding these restaurants, I was a little surprised at just how much power the Times review holds. It is almost identical to a Broadway opening. Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven is an intriguing look behind the scenes of this famous New York restaurant, and a very good place to start in watching the Culinary Masterpieces set.

Besides my aforementioned new-found interest in the foodie-world, another big draw for me with this box set was the inclusion of this film. My initial interest had nothing to do with pastry though, and everything to do with the directors. Kings of Pastry was directed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker. Pennebaker made his name with Don’t Look Back (1967), which was a study of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in 1965. The film is regularly cited as one of the greatest rock movies of all time, and deservedly so. When I saw Pennebaker’s name associated with this one, I wondered how he would treat the subject.

Once again, I was educated about an environment in the food world which I was previously unaware of. In this case it is the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, described as France’s “Nobel Prize” for pastry. Sixteen chefs from around the world compete for this high honor, and the drama surrounding it is quite extraordinary.

It may be Hegedus and Pennebaker’s talent in finding the telling moments, but I found myself completely absorbed in what it takes to create some of the most elaborate pastry concoctions one is likely to see. Watching these chefs work is almost identical to watching a master sculptor. There were actually a number of times when I completely forgot that they were creating desserts, because the amount of effort and artistry they exhibit is unbelievable. High drama ensues when chef Philippe Rigollot’s gravity-defying sugar sculpture breaks, just a couple of hours before the unveiling. I found this 84-minute film highly entertaining and surprisingly emotional.

Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef (2008) / A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt (2011) are basically biographies of world-class chefs. I have to say that after the high drama of both A Table in Heaven and Kings of Pastry, I found these two films a little disappointing. There is nothing particularly “bad” about either of these documentaries, but there is really nothing particularly special about them either.

The 52-minute Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef is just that. In it, we learn that he likes to give tastings to children, which is an interesting twist. I believe the quote is “Out of the mouths of babes…” and Martin’s idea that he gets the unvarnished truth from kids is as valid a method of gauging opinions as any other. The 69-minute A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt is a bit more adventurous, as the documentary follows the chef through a decade of ups and downs in the world of haute cuisine.

I will not discount the fact that I may have been a little burned out on the whole foodie scene by the time I reached the biographies. Altogether, the films add up to over four and a half-hours of material. As for bonus features, they are rather slim. Besides basic text biographies of the players, there was only one extra that I found to be very relevant. It is “Reverse Shot: An Interview with DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus,” included on Kings of Pastry. In this five-minute piece, the tables are turned, and the directors are interviewed. There are no great revelations, but I did find it to be somewhat interesting.

First Run Features excel at these types of sets, no matter what the topic. They package fairly obscure and generally very good films together in a budget-priced set. Culinary Masterpieces is a fine addition to their catalog, and for foodies, or budding foodies (such as myself), Culinary Masterpieces definitely whets the appetite.

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Greg Barbrick

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