Review: The Quest of Alain Ducasse

by Andrew Parker

Alain Ducasse is one of the world’s foremost chefs and restaurateurs, having opened 23 restaurants in numerous countries around the world and earning 18 coveted Michelin Stars in the process. He’s a big deal, and more than worthy of having his success story covered in some form, but it’s hard to believe that the approach and style adopted by French filmmaker Gilles de Maistre for The Quest of Alain Ducasse was the best way to go about making such a biography. Offering precious little insight about what makes the influential, but enigmatic Ducasse tick and a tone that borders on condescension, it’s a frustratingly opaque list of bullet points that barely differentiates itself from the litany of other documentaries already out there about upper class, white, male chefs who have dug their heels into a specific corner of the restaurant industry.

The Quest of Alain Ducasse purports that it wants to be a tour through the heart of modern cuisine with one of the world’s top chefs, but it’s really just de Maistre showing off his subject’s day-to-day life and accomplishments without much context beyond constantly reminding the viewer of Ducasse’s esteemed position in the culinary world. The filmmakers followed Ducasse for two years as the chef (who only actually cooked anything in front of de Mainstre once during that time frame) continues about his perpetually packed schedule. One moment he’s helping to construct an ambitious new restaurant at the Palace of Versailles. The next he’s visiting a chef’s school that he’s funding in Manila. Then it’s off to America to spend some time with equally influential chef Dan Barber. Then he has to check in on the sturgeon farm in China that provides the caviar for his restaurants. Between that are business meetings, menu tastings, research trips, and hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries. All that emerges from this globetrotting is that Ducasse isn’t that mysterious, but rather an average, knowledgeable businessman.

If that’s all we’re going to get from The Quest of Alain Ducasse, it almost isn’t worth the investment of time. There’s nothing that de Maistre gets out of the notoriously private Ducasse (who doesn’t address a single personal issue throughout) that can’t be gleaned from looking at the man’s resume, and that piece of paper might actually have room for some interesting extra details. It’s not that Ducasse isn’t a charming or likable figure to follow, but that nothing being captured by de Maistre is particularly exciting or revelatory. It’s a film about a well known personality that’s devoid of any real personality.

To make matters worse, de Maistre is trying desperately to make something out of nothing by constantly inserting himself into The Quest of Alain Ducasse. From time to time, de Maistre will ask leading questions from behind the camera that are borderline asinine: “Do you want to be the king of gastronomy?” “Do you still dream in the fast lane?” “Is your food political?” That last question almost goes somewhere before it becomes apparent that Ducasse won’t answer anything posed to him, but he’ll at least play nice with the filmmakers.

But that softball line of questioning that should have been cut from the film entirely is nothing compared to the stifling, unnecessary, grating, and dumbed down narration that treats the viewer like they’re an imbecile incapable of understanding not only Ducasse’s greatness, but simple concepts like how draining it must be to travel the world in a private plane or what it means to be an in-demand chef. The footage captured by de Maistre already speaks for itself, and the narration only describes what the viewer just saw. There’s no ambiguity in the image, so the filmmaker’s need to underline everything that’s happening strikes as insulting. Furthermore, the tone of narration suggests a frustration on the part of the filmmaking team to get any personal details or musings from their subject, often coming across – in tandem with the film’s strangely overbearing score – like the filmmakers are trying to nab a wily criminal that’s been on the lam for decades. It’s a bizarrely tone deaf touch to material that would have worked fine without hammering home the obvious context. The Quest of Alain Ducasse still wouldn’t be an exceptional movie without the misplaced stabs at journalism and narration straight out of a nightly news magazine, but it would be a lot less annoying.

There are some moments peppered throughout that can bring a smile to viewers’ faces, most of them coming from Ducasse’s frequent displays of generosity. He’ll give bold criticism to any of his chefs if something isn’t working, but he’ll also explain that he wants his concerns to be taken as a dialogue and not as gospel. He’ll jovially chat with the pilots of his plane when one of them asks him the proper technique to cook a lobster. He always comes alive with joy in any situation where he can give back to the world around him, particularly during time spent at his Manila cooking academy or while volunteering to oversee a meal made from unnecessarily wasted food in Brazil. The care that Ducasse puts into his craft shines through, as does his warmth.

But that’s still not enough for The Quest of Alain Ducasse to overcome de Maistre’s pedestrian direction and the subject’s lack of emotional openness. But even with a better director and a more open subject this is still just another documentary about a rich white genius from the food service sector being celebrated for being successful, and quite frankly I think it’s time to put a stop to these kinds of films for the next couple of years. It feels like every other month there’s a new foodie flick profiling a similar, almost always white and almost always male culinary wunderkind, and all of them are basically the same movie. If people still go to see these things because they love to look at all the pretty food, I suggest they start saving their money and going to actual restaurants where you can smell, taste, and touch the food instead of marvelling at it from a distance, or at the very least staying home and watching the Food Network to learn how to cook all of this stuff themselves. While Ducasse is undoubtedly a major player in the world of haute cuisine, I’m positive we don’t need another documentary where a great chef is celebrated simply for being great and being enormously wealthy.

The Quest of Alain Ducasse opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, June 8, 2016. It will be available on iTunes and VOD the same day.

Check out the trailer for The Quest of Alain Ducasse:

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