“I Have Never Seen Any Restaurant Movies”: Frederick Wiseman on Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Haute cuisine as a form of artistic creation—one both time-intensive in its preparation and ephemeral in its shelf-life—and how to keep such a tradition alive is at the center of Frederick Wiseman’s Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros. Whittled down from 150 hours of footage, the four-hour documentary takes on a leisurely pace matching both the unhurried unfolding of the dining experience at the titular restaurant and the elaborate process of crafting a meal. Beyond showing us the preparation of the food and every conceivable method of cookery, Wiseman brings us the source of it, too, following the Troisgois chefs as they visit farmers’ markets, cheese caves and cattle farms. As Michel Troisgros prepares to pass the legacy of the restaurant down to his sons, it’s difficult not to think of him as an avatar for the 93-year-old Wiseman, who also continues to pursue a specialized practice.
Filmmaker spoke with Frederick Wiseman about his 44th feature ahead of its theatrical run. Zipporah Films releases the movie on November 22.
Filmmaker: Sometimes you don’t know anything about your subjects before you start. I know you’re very into food. How much did you know about Les Troisgros before you filmed?
Frederick Wiseman: I knew very little other than that it’s a great restaurant, had Michelin stars for 54 years and was run by the same family for 80 years. What happened was, I had stayed at a friend’s during COVID, picked up the Michelin Guide and found a restaurant called Troisgros. Since I like to go to good restaurants, I thought my friends would like it, too. We made a reservation and went. After lunch, Cesar Troigros, who’s the fourth-generation chef, came into the dining room as chefs often do and worked the room. When he came over I sort of blurted out, “I make documentaries. Would you agree to have one made about your restaurant?” He said “let me ask my father,” and came back half an hour later and said “Why not?” I discovered later—only this spring, when I went to show them the film—that his father wasn’t actually there, but what he did was just look me up on Wikipedia. I went back there to finalize negotiations, but other than that I knew very little.
Filmmaker: I read an interview where you said filming is a combination of luck, chance and good judgments. That sounds like a bit of a chance. How did the other elements come into play when making this film?
Wiseman: Luck was filming the dining room scene when Michel is talking to guests, and he stops to talk about the family history, which I hadn’t gotten footage of yet. I just happened to be there at that moment. It was sheer luck that he talked about it, because it became a very important scene.
Good judgment—I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but that’s just recognizing what you’ve got. The scene I just mentioned is obviously important, but other times scenes are important but not obvious. They become important based on the way I edit them. What’s involved in making these movies has nothing to do with the technical aspect of movies. It has to do with trying to understand human behavior, and whether I’m right or wrong about it, I have to think that I understand what’s going on, in order to make these judgments—of whether I want to use the sequence, how I’m going to shape it and edit it down, where to place it in the structure of the film. Making those good judgments involves thinking about the implications of words and actions in the film.
Filmmaker: Was it apparent from the start that the cheese cart would make its way into the film?
Wiseman: Of course! But I didn’t know I was going to use it twice, with different aspects of the cheese each time. I also had no idea before filming that I would be visiting cheese factories, and showing the manufacture and consumption of cheese.
Filmmaker: Going back to what you said about the technical aspect of film, there seemed to be more movement in the camerawork. Does that have anything to do with working with solely James Bishop this time and without your longtime cinematographer John Davey? Or was it just the nature of the environment and setting?
Wiseman: It’s the nature of the kitchen. In a kitchen, the movement of the chef is not choreographed. They move fast and quickly and we had to dodge our way around them, so a decision was made the first time I saw the activity in the kitchen that I would be getting close-ups and short shots. So much of what they were doing was best shot that way, both for the literal aspect of what’s cooking and how it’s being prepared, but also to give a sense of the variety of activities taking place.
Filmmaker: Food movies and TV shows are all the rage right now and have a particular aesthetic. I’m wondering if you’ve seen any of them? One of the more popular ones even featured Troigros.
Wiseman: I haven’t seen any of them. When I watch television it’s primarily tennis and basketball. I hardly ever watch anything else.
Filmmaker: At one point in the film when Cesar is feeding his young daughter, Michel says “Cuisine is not cinema.” What did you take that to mean? I thought he was referring to how cooking is just one-and-done; it can’t be shaped or faked. Or that it’s ugly.
Wiseman: My guess was that he was talking about taking care of the granddaughter, that it’s not like making a movie.
Filmmaker: That makes sense. It’s messy and not pretty to look at. Do you see similarities at all between cuisine and cinema?
Wiseman: There’s a lot of work involved in both, and in food chefs are also very concerned about the way things look, not just what goes into the recipe. As you see in the film, each plate is inspected before the server takes it into the dining room. If a kidney is an eighth of an inch off center, there was somebody with tweezers to move it. If there’s even a little bit of sauce on the plate out of place, there was someone who would wipe it off. They’re as concerned with the look as they were with the taste. There’s no question about this, and I didn’t know this in advance: chefs are artists in every aspect of their work, not just in their palettes. You taste the artistry, but the artistry is also in the presentation.
Cooking reminded me of ballet or theater, which are both ephemeral arts. No two performances are the same. The actors are great, the audience responds, then it’s over. There’s no enduring record. In film there’s a slightly more enduring record—if you take care of the negative, it may last a while.
Filmmaker: There’s an element of rigorous, disciplined editing that’s required of both professions, whether it’s the editing of film and footage, or the elements of a recipe or dish.
Wiseman: Using that analogy, the way things look on the plate is the way the film looks, and the equivalent of the taste is the structure of the film.
Also, shooting in a kitchen was a lot like with the ballet or theater company. You have an opportunity to shoot in different ways, unlike when you’re shooting a welfare center, where you only get one chance to get [the shot], because nothing is repeated. But here, they make salmon or kidneys every other day, and if I don’t like the way it looks, I can shoot it again—and I don’t mean because I’m asking a performer to act differently, but just so I could get a different type of shot.
Filmmaker: Speaking of performance, films tend to have an element of that, which is more pronounced here, because there’s already a kind of performativity to going out and eating at a restaurant. When you observed the diners, did you get a sense they were acting differently in any way, if not because of the camera or for Troisgros?
Wiseman: I think Cesar and Michel are putting on a performance, but I don’t think it’s linked to the fact that they’re being filmed. They have a role as great chefs, and they perform that role. Cesar was a bit more restrained and shier than Michel, who has been at it longer. One of the nice things about both of them was their utter lack of pretension. They were extremely natural and friendly. It was just in their nature. I never had a sense they were bullshitting the clients or performing for me. It’s no different than you as a journalist or a lawyer or doctor that meets a lot of people. You need to have a good bullshit meter for survival purposes. Similarly, if you think someone’s doing something for the camera, then you stop. The other aspect of this is that people aren’t good enough actors to suddenly act differently when they’re being filmed, and if they try it’s quite evident.
If anything, I think the clients were showing off to each other. The group of Americans was the most florid example—when the guy tries to inhale the fumes of his food, so to speak. And those comments about wine—people’s comments about wine are often extremely funny.
Filmmaker: Your earlier films often highlighted flaws, faults and the complexities of bureaucracy and processes, but in your recent projects, including this film, there seems to be a shift towards something more uplifting. Do you see any sort of evolution in your work?
Wiseman: I think that’s more related to the choice of subject matter. For example, you couldn’t make a film about Bridgewater, where I made Titicut Follies, without showing how horrible it was—the lack of training of the doctors, the callousness of the guards. It would almost be impossible to make that film without it being critical in some way. I think, however, that it’s just as important to make films about places that are doing a good job, like the Paris Opera Ballet, as it is about places that are inadequate. They’re just as good subjects. There’s something about documentary film, where people feel it’s not really a documentary unless it takes a place apart. I, on the other hand, think it’s important to show people doing good work and terrible work. Cumulatively, the films provide a much wider view of human nature. So, I don’t think I’ve changed so much, because I’m as interested in competent people doing good work as incompetent people doing lousy work.
Filmmaker: There are many criticisms of the restaurant industry in general though, like the long hours and cooks being overworked. Did you ever get a sense of that from the cooks and chefs at Troisgros?
Wiseman: I have never seen any restaurant movies, but from what my friends told me they always involve a lot of yelling and screaming. That wasn’t the case here, and I was here too long for them to have covered it up—seven weeks. There are maybe five or six regulars and seven or eight apprentices who moved in and out. The people that want to work in a kitchen do it because they love the work. They know it’s hard work before they start. You don’t see the clock in the film, but they often come in at 7:00am, work straight through until 3:30pm, then they’re back at 5:30pm for the dinner shift. The pastry chefs are often there until 11 or 12 at night.
Filmmaker: In the closing scenes of the film, we hear Michel talking to a vintner about their children taking over and succession plans. Do you find parallels between this scenario in cinema? Is there anyone who might preserve a similar cinematic or documentary legacy?
Wiseman: I don’t know many filmmakers and I don’t see many movies, so if there’s a scene, I’m outside it. Obviously I’d like it if people like my films, but I don’t have any sense of establishing a tradition. Everybody works in their own way, and sometimes this whole notion of tradition is a bit overworked—but I’m saying that more out of ignorance because I watch very few movies. After a day of sitting in front of the screen, I’d rather go to the theater or ballet.